“I’m a really nostalgic person. I think all the time about how I wish I could still be in high school, but then I remember that high school was one of the worst things of my life.” (Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast in The Boston Globe)
What Ms. Cosentino expresses, straight-forwardly, above is elucidated beautifully by Jeffrey Eugenides in his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides. It is perhaps my new favorite book about adolescence, striking in its honest portrayal of what it feels like to grow up a sensitive young-adult male; the romantic and lustful yearnings, the cowardice, and the larger-than-life scale that everything feels experienced in; how great feeling and meaning can be drawn from every moment, even from the mundanity of looking out your bedroom window. The suicides themselves serve a key literal function in the novel, as they represent the depths to which the Lisbon girls will themselves to go to escape the world and all its flaws, but something about the description of post-suicide life in the Michigan neighborhood rang familiar to me, someone whose life has been blessedly free from the tragedy of suicide. I believe this is because much of the book reads like a sort of ode or elegy to youth. The book doesn’t completely romanticize the process of growing up (for the young Lisbon girls are driven to kill themselves), but much of what’s written about in the novel feels coated with a film of nostalgia, of longing for time’s impossible return. To read the novel’s suicides as metaphor for the parts of ourselves that inevitably get killed off at a certain point, early in our lives, really enriches the reading experience. Not even acknowledging the metaphor at play here, though, the book is an elegant work, filled with wonderful and expressive sentences and characters.
There are passages in this novel so lovely that I had to stop myself and re-read entire pages. Every word written about Old Mrs. Karafilis, a woman who feels mystically linked to the suffering of the four Lisbon girls in the year after their youngest sister’s suicide. The passage where the Lisbon girls speak (for the first time, really) to the chorus of boys who, as men, narrate the novel, over the telephone, through the music of their record player. Trip Fontaine, the school’s Don Juan, being taught chivalry by his father and his gay lover. The brief mention of a secret kiss shared between boys, to taste of a Lisbon girl’s lip-balm, stolen, if I’m remembering correctly, by a boy who worked for girls’ father. A night of passion between Lux Lisbon and Trip, in the grass of the football field’s end-zone, and his feeling immediately after of indescribable disinterest (“It’s weird. I mean, I liked her. I really liked her. I just got sick of her right then”).
The group of boys who narrate The Virgin Suicies reminded me, vaguely, of the sexless narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. The books definitely share a theme of obsession. The strong allure of the Lisbon girls loosens only slightly as the years go on. TVS gives an impassioned account of events retrospectively, decades after they’ve taken place. Feelings are often described in the past tense, but just as the memory of the Lisbon girls’ refuses to pass with their bodies into oblivion, so too, I feel, do those feelings from youth; desire, freedom, and a longing for innocence, purity without chastity.
Towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to figuring out why the girls killed themselves, which reveals one of the book’s major questions: How much can you ever really know another person? The men who narrate The Virgin Suicides spend a lifetime analyzing artifacts (“Exhibits #1 through #97”) from the lives of the Lisbon girls, and, in the end, feel as though they really know nothing.
Ms. Perl, a journalist for the neighborhood’s newspaper, uses the Lisbons’ tragedy in controversial, factually- and morally-corrupt articles and essays. The first-person plural narrator writes disdainfully of Perl and her investigative tactics, but isn’t she no more or less guilty of misrepresentation than the boys, grown into men now, who idealized (and idealize still) the Lisbon girls out of proportion? The boys, who worshipped at the altar of the Lisbon home, blind, for a long time after, to the ugly parts of the girls’ inner and projected selves? Which leads to another of the novel’s seemingly-unanswerable questions: How much truth do we distort in our attempt to know another person? How much are our personal relationships grounded in self-deception?
I plan on reading The Virgin Suicides again, a promise I make to myself, after finishing a great book, often, but fulfill rarely. This time, I just know that I’ll want to return to this book’s world to remind myself of what it felt like to grow up when I did, which is a remarkable achievement of the novel because my turn-of-the-century Connecticut sea-town is greatly different from 1970’s Grosse Point, Michigan. Much of the emotion (the pleasant and the painful), though, given such graceful depiction in the pages of The Virgin Suicides, couldn’t be more similar to what I remember carrying inside me throughout my time in high school.
- I played this cover during my reading of the book’s final twenty pages. (I took my time with this book.) It’s a song about death, with intimations of failed suicide attempts, written by an artist (Vic Chesnutt, who took his own life earlier this year) whose music I should admit to not knowing a great deal about. It made for a fitting companion to the ending of this harrowingly lovely book.