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Adolescence is tough. Just ask teen drama queens like Bella Swan and Elsa. But the Lisbon sisters take teenaged torment to the next level in Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides. The sisters, held like prisoners in the house by a domineering, repressive mother, gradually waste away from the isolation and hopelessness. Over the course of a year in the 1970s, to the horror of their family, friends and neighbors, all five girls eventually kill themselves. And a group of teenage boys, who've always been obsessed with the mysterious and doomed girls, spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out why. How's that for the plot of a debut novel?
Pretty good, according to the literary world.
Part coming-of-age story, part memoir, and part tragedy, The Virgin Suicides shows us how a community watches while a troubled family self-destructs. Eugenides draws on his experience growing up in suburban Detroit to locate the tragic events in the novel in the larger story of the decline and fall of the American dream of happy families, comfortable and prosperous middle-class communities, and children who are safe and cared for. It found enthusiastic fans in both young adults and old. There are a zillion YouTube video reviews of the book by teen girls; evidently, they can relate.
Eugenides is a major award-winning writer now, and he came out swinging with this first novel. He got fired for writing it on the job, but the novel's first chapter, published on its own in the Paris Review, received the 1991 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his novel Middlesex, about an intersex man exploring his gender identity. Guy doesn't shy away from writing about the challenging topics.
Sofia Coppola loved the novel so much she wrote a screenplay for a 1999 movie version without even having the rights from the author. The book's popularity has endured, and it's such a favorite of high school lit teachers that Shmoop just had to have a look.
So the narrator is a mysterious "We" and keeps referring to "Exhibits" as though we were the judge or jury in a trial, which is all a little confusing. But what isn't confusing is that adolescence is a mysterious and painful time. The Lisbon girls, the protagonists of The Virgin Suicides, take the struggle to its ultimate consequence and kill themselves. The whole point of the novel seems to be to try to uncover why the girls try so desperately, some of them multiple times, to rip themselves off of the face of the earth.
But really, the novel's not only about suicide at all.
Sure, suicide is in the title and yeah, the plot involves five suicides. And yeah, it's about how we can never really know why someone kills herself. But suicide is just one solution to what this story's really about: the struggles of adolescence and emerging adulthood; the mystery of families and how they help (or don't help) kids navigate this time of sexual discovery and figuring out who they are. It's about what isolation and indifference does to kids who are "different," and who are having a hard time seeing what it takes to get through the crazy teenage years. It's about siblings who turn to each other when there's no one else to turn to.
Despite all the horribly depressing stuff, there's a lot of humor in the novel, mostly in the author's descriptions of the imaginations of teenage boys who wonder about the mysteries of teenage girls. What really goes on in those bedrooms? Tampons! Bras! Crucifixes! Wait…crucifixes? Anyway, the boys seem to need the Lisbon sisters as a way of understanding their own journey through adolescence, their own questions about sex and grief and change.
It's a journey we've all taken. And when you, like the narrators, are middle-aged, we guarantee you'll still be trying to figure it out.
Jeffrey Eugenides is on Facebook.
Sofia Coppola went bonkers for the novel.
Those Cynical New Yorkers
This New York Times reviewer admired the "lyrical charm" of Eugenides' prose, but thought the story was a little far-fetched. Really?
Dazed But Not Confused
Dazed Digital gets to the nitty-gritty of the novel in this interview with the author.
Grosse Pointe Blank
The author chats it up with The Paris Review about the art of fiction, how he stopped being embarrassed about being from suburban Michigan, and why he smokes cigars to keep awake while writing.
Even Tavi Gevinson has an opinion about the novel.
The concept of suicide contagion has been found to be tragically real, especially among adolescents.
The movie trailer for Sofia Coppola's adaptation of the novel.
The author reminisces about writing The Virgin Suicides on the sly at work.
Extremely Hard and Incredibly Fun
Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer get together to discuss what it's like to be a writer.
Must Have Struck a Chord
For some reason, there are countless YouTube reviews of the novel posted by teenage girls. We're guessing they can relate. Here's one of them.
The author talks with the BBC about how his grandparents' immigrant experience influenced his writing.
Eugenides says The Virgin Suicides was inspired by the collapse of Detroit's auto industry, and, subsequently, Detroit.
NPR's Terry Gross interviews the author.
A photograph of the author.
Sofia Coppola's take on the Lisbons. Do they look like what you imagined they looked like?
Eugenides accepting the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Middlesex.