Tuesday, December 13, 2011

#65 Reading New Authors: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is another new book from the Book Club I joined, but I enjoyed this book a lot more than Home. Not because the topic is enjoyable, but because the writing was fantastic, the plot intricate and gripping, and the characters enthralling.

There are no spoiler alerts for this book, because the author tells you on the back book cover and in the first few pages exactly what is going to happen: five sisters, known as the Lisbon girls, are going to kill themselves over the course of a year. You are never allowed to forget this unhappy ending as you read through the events leading up to the final act, little reminders are spattered throughout the dreamy, trance-inducing pages of the book. Even when the girls are at their happiest, the narrator will reflect on how their happiness will not last because they will all be dead soon.

The narrator is a "we," a group of young boys obsessed with the Lisbon sisters, who are even more mysterious than the general run of girls as they are held in close quarters by their protective parents. The narration is a piecing together of memories, recollections, pictures and momentos, trying to recreate the story, to make sense of the mystery. The mystery is not when they died, who killed them, or how they died - all of which are related to the reader long before the actual deaths; the overwhelming mystery is why?

There are clues of course. Mary tells her homecoming date, the one unchaperoned date she was ever allowed to have in her life, that the girls just want to live, if only they could be allowed to. Their overbearing mother seems to have stifled all life out of the house. Yet the girls sneak out to freedom constantly... Lux has romantic trysts on her own roof, mysterious notes appear in the boys' mailboxes overnight, there are some phone conversations... and it seems that the girls have a plan to escape.

So why death? Why suicide? This is the question which drives the book, and why the story is so compelling. The climax of the book is a rushing, horrifying, slide into the inevitable, which I knew was coming from the beginning but somehow still hoped to escape.

The question swirls around in the air, permeating the house, the lives and memories of the boys. Reasons grow and multiply, some ring with a small amount of truth and yet are incomplete. The depressing confusion, the emotional and mental chaos of the narration sucked me in and held me enthralled for the entirety of the book.

It is brilliantly rendered with all of the empty emotion and frustrated need for explanation that I felt after my friend Heidi committed suicide when she and I were 15.

Why? Whenever I look back at my life, through my dimly held memories, she is as mysterious and aloof as the Lisbon girls.  I can't remember if I actually saw her as ethereal all the time, or if that's just how I remember her now, through the grief-tinted lens that I have so often peered into, still trying to figure out why. Looking back, I sometimes feel that she was untouchable, despite the fact that she hung around the edges of my group of friends and I had known her for years. She would write sweet notes in my yearbooks, give me a brief hug even though physical contact made her uncomfortable, and flash an occasional smile at me as I danced around her like an exuberant puppy begging for attention. I often wanted to make Heidi smile. Not because she seemed depressed, but because she had such a beautiful one, and she was so often a serious person. My memories of laughing with her, of cozy nights being girls and giggling together have been obscured by the much starker memories surrounding her death.

She didn't leave a note or say a word to any of us. Just one day there and the next day suddenly gone... so suddenly that her best friends found out when they made the announcement over the PA system. I remember gripping my desk, feeling my heart drop into my stomach, the burning sensation in my throat as I tried to swallow tears and gasping shock. Followed by utter desolation and physical pain. This was my first experience with grief. As the principal made the announcement he offered grief counselors, asking Heidi's good friends to gather together in the school's office. I remember stumbling, blindly through the hallway, although I didn't cry until I reached that stunned, heart-broken group of people.

Since then I have had other friends who tried to commit suicide. Too many of them. None of them successful attempts thank god. One of them, a best friend, had also been friends with Heidi, which made me want to strangle her for selfishness... she knew, intimately, how deeply Heidi's death had effected all of us and yet she still tried. Their reasons always varied. Only Heidi's remains a complete mystery.

Why? we asked. Why? I still ask today.

And more importantly, is there anything I could have done?

The survivor's questions.

Jeffrey Eugenides captures these two questions perfectly, even though the only one he asks outright is "Why." Although there is little "action" in his narration, he masterfully spins out the Lisbon girls story with true artistry and realism, leaving the reader with no sense of completion, because in such a situation there is none. Black humor and little tidbits of reality keep the book from becoming overwhelmingly depressing. The boys obsession with the girls, from their clothing to their used tampons, brings many lighter moments of humanity and amusement. I had no idea boys could be so obsessive!

Even more amusing was when these star-struck boys actually interacted with the Lisbon girls on Homecoming night and found that they're actually human, that there were even similarities with their own sisters! Eugenides walks the line between bright and dark, keeping a careful foot on either side.  I really enjoyed this book, despite the memories it roused, or maybe even because of them. It made me feel less alone, I'm not the only one who continues to wonder: Why?

No comments:

Post a Comment