The novel is narrated from the first-person plural perspective, the voice of a group of neighbor teen boys that, like the Lisbon sisters, are not quite identifiable and seem to expand and contract to include and exclude different members as they take part in the action or just observe and hear gossip about the girls.
The narrators have made it their life work to understand what happened to the Lisbon sisters. Why did they kill themselves? Who were they? Why did they involve us? There's a kind of collective consciousness throughout the novel, a consistent voice in spite of that voice representing a group of boys. At the end of the novel, we learn that they're telling the story from the perspective of a balding and paunchy middle age, looking back in a melancholy way on their teenage years and still trying to understand what happened to the girls.
The narrators live on the same street as the Lisbons in a pretty conventional 1970s suburban neighborhood. They share interests and do conventional teenage-boy stuff, including thinking a lot about cars and girls and sex. But they're not the stereotypical horny boys. The author said he didn't write them that way because he wasn't that way as a kid:
My memory of being a teenage boy was as being romantic and poetic rather than a lustful dog, so I think there might be a misconception of what many teenage boys are like. (Source)
And the boys are romantics; they're obsessed with the beautiful and inaccessible Lisbon sisters. They're madly in love with them even though they're out of reach—that's what makes them so alluring. They're a mysterious and exciting element in their otherwise pretty unexciting suburban life. After Cecilia's first suicide attempt, their fascination with the sisters gets even stronger. But no sooner do they get their first up-close-and-personal look at the girls at a party for Cecilia than Cecilia throws herself out the window, and the girls retreat among themselves.
After Cecilia's death, the boys try to learn more about them by spying on them from the roof of their houses, watching them in the yard, and collecting "evidence." They get their hands on Cecilia's diary, they steal stuff from the Lisbons' trash and house, and over the years they talk to people that had contact with the girls. Nothing's too trivial to notice. On the last night of the girls' lives, Lux wears a halter top and Joe Hill Conley knows the exact date he last saw her wear it: "July, two years ago" (4.166). They note when the girls' bedroom lights come on; they watch the ambulances come and go; they watch Mr. Lisbon in his car; they watch the house deteriorate and fall apart during the months after Cecilia's death.
"Watch" is the important word here—most of what they think they know about the family comes from this kind of constant surveillance from a distance. They keep "souvenirs" of the girls in boxes labeled from 1 to 97, and even as adults, they go through the boxes from time to time looking for answers. There's a detective story feel to all this. The narrator calls this stuff "evidence" and the boys label the boxes as "exhibits." Of course, the truth is that none of these pieces of evidence ever really shed any light on the girls' inner lives or their motivations for suicide.
Rescue fantasies abound:
In the Kriegers' basement, we lay on a strip of leftover carpeting and dreamed of all the ways we could soothe the Lisbon girls. Some of us wanted to lie down in the grass with them, or play the guitar and sing them songs. Paul Baldino wanted to take them to Metro Beach so they could get a tan. Chase Buell, more and more under the sway of his father the Christian Scientist, said only that the girls needed help "not of this world." (3.12)
Everyone has his own idea about what the sisters need. After the phone calls with the back-and-forth songs, the narrators recall,
Thinking back, we decided the girls were trying to talk to us all along, to elicit our help, but we were too infatuated to listen. […] Who else did they have to turn to? Not their parents. Not the neighborhood. Inside their house they were prisoners; outside, lepers. And so they hid from the world, waiting for someone—for us—to save them. (4.152)
At this point the boys still overestimate their role in the sisters' lives. It allows them to be drawn in to that final, terrible night.
As the novel progresses, and the boys have some actual contact with the girls, we learn a few of their names. For example, there's Peter Sissen, who goes to their house for dinner and steals a bra. He reports back with tales of the things he saw in their bathroom cabinet like an explorer returning from a distant planet. The Planet of the Teenage Girls:
Bedrooms filled with crumpled panties, of stuffed animals hugged to death by the passion of the girls, of a crucifix draped with a brassiere, […] tubes of red lipstick, […] depilatory wax. (1.11)
Not to mention the really exotic stuff like deodorant and perfumes and tampons. Who can explain such things? Not the narrators. For all their erotic interest in the girls, they're pretty naïve.
We were surprised to learn that there were no douches anywhere because we thought girls douched every night like brushing their teeth. But our disappointment was forgotten in the next second when Sissen told us of a discovery that went beyond our wildest imaginings. In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. (1.12)
Paul Bardino, son of Sammy "The Shark" Bardino, is the one who discovers Cecilia in the tub after sneaking into the Lisbon house through the sewer. Some people think that he used his father's secret escape tunnel to do so, but it's never confirmed.
He insisted that he had knocked. And then Paul Bardino told how he had stepped into the bathroom and found Cecilia, naked, her wrists oozing blood […].
Paul Bardino had no doubts: "She did it on the john," he said. "Then she got into the tub. She sprayed the place, man." (1.18, 1.24)
Other important characters include Chase Buell, whose father is religious and makes Chase go clean the Lisbons' house. Kyle Krieger doesn't really do anything except leave his retainer at the party. Despite the references to one or another of the individual boys, none of them are very well developed as characters compared to, say, Lux or Cecilia Lisbon. Because the boys share everything they know about the Lisbon girls, we never really know which one is the narrator actually telling the story. Whichever boy he is, he's one heckuva prose stylist.
Some of the narrators miraculously get to take the girls out on a group date after Trip Fontaine convinces their parents to let them go.
That was how a few of us came to take the girls on the only unchaperoned date they ever had. (3.110)
All the boys are dying to go, but Trip picks Parkie Denton, Kevin Head, and Joe Hill Conley as the lucky three chosen to accompany the girls. (The guy telling the story isn't one of them.) The boys are surprised to find the girls acting "normal" once they're out of the house. They watch them in amazement all night long—how they're dancing, who spends time in the bathroom, how they talk, what they're wearing.
But the night ends in disaster as Lux misses her curfew and the girls are locked up in their house and pulled out of school.
Following the Homecoming dance, Mrs. Lisbon closed the downstairs shades. All we could see were the girls' incarcerated shadows, which ran riot in our imaginations. (4.2)
Everything they imagine about the girls from that night on, they learn from watching the house and seeing the girls come and go. They get a sexual education watching Lux compulsively make love on the roof to a series of random men, and talking to boys who claimed to be one of them. They try to imagine every detail. They hear from one of them that Lux wore strawberry lipstick.
Woody Clabault's sister had the same brand, and once, after we got into his parents' liquor cabinet, we made him put on the lipstick and kiss each one of us so that we, too, would know what it tasted like. (4.16)
As the girls continue to be stuck in the house, the boys continue their detective work. They watch the mailbox and find out what catalogs and travel brochures the girls have ordered and order them themselves:
We got them all. And, flipping pages, hiked through dusty passes with the girls, stopping every now and then to help them take off their backpacks, placing our hands on their warm, moist shoulders and gazing off at papaya sunsets. We drank tea with them in a water pavilion, among blazing goldfish. We did whatever we wanted to do, and Cecilia hadn't killed herself: she was a bride in Calcutta, with a red veil and the soles of her feet dyed with henna. (4.86)
(Editor's Note: Is this beautiful prose or what?)
They grab onto any detail they can find, but none of this helps them understand what's going on in that sad house.
We'd like to tell you with authority what it was like inside the Lisbon house, or what the girls felt being imprisoned in it. Sometimes, drained by this investigation, we long for some shred of evidence, some Rosetta stone that would explain the girls at last. But even though that winter was certainly not a happy one, little more can be averred. (4.87)
As the months go by and the girls don't appear, the boys lose themselves in other things. The images of the girls and sound of their voices seem to fade.
"They're just memories now," Chase Buell said sadly. "Time to write them off." But even as he uttered these words, he rebelled against them, as we all did. And rather than consign the girls to oblivion, we gathered their possessions once more, everything we've gotten hold of during our strange curatorship: Cecilia's high-tops; Therese's microscope; a jewelry box in which a strand of Mary's dishwater-blonde hair lay embedded on cotton […]. (4.127)
The girls seem lost to them until something strange happens. The boys and their families start finding photos of the Virgin Mary here and there, and one day, notes start appearing in mailboxes, delivered by the girls in the dead of night. The boys have to do something. So they start calling the house and playing songs back and forth with the girls—songs that communicate their feelings:
The Lisbon girls: "Alone Again, Naturally," Gilbert O'Sullivan
Us: "You've Got a Friend," James Taylor (4.152)
The boys convince themselves that the girls have turned to them because they love them and want their help. Once the songs stop, they're overcome with fantasies of rescuing the girls:
Mr. Buell had an extension ladder we could easily prop against the girls' window. "Just like eloping," Eugie Kent said, and the words made our minds drift, to a red-faced, small-town justice of the peace, and a sleeper compartment in a train passing through blue wheat fields at night. We imagined all sorts of things, waiting for the girls to signal us. (4.153)
The boys see the girls in their bedroom throwing things into a suitcase. A note arrives: "Tomorrow. Midnight. Wait for our signal" (4.157). They have no clue about what's going to happen. They're too caught up in their own fantasies about escaping with the girls.
Of course, it's all been a ruse. While the boys wait in the darkened Lisbon house the next night, the girls are dying while Lux pretends to seduce Chase Buell before leaving the house herself. They go downstairs and see Bonnie hanging there. At that moment, they understand they've been living in a fantasy world:
We had never known her. They had brought us here to find that out. (4.206)
Only Mary barely survived. The boys tell us about the aftermath of the mass suicides: the media that descends on their street, the stupid news articles about why they did it, the coroner's report that they read, the neighbors clearing out the house. They toured the cleaned-out house during a garage sale.
They try to put the whole thing behind them:
Like everyone else, we went to Alice O'Connor's coming-out party to forget about the Lisbon girls. […] Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives.[…] Drunk and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other word, for life. (5.22)
Staggering drunk out of the party, they see the ambulance at the Lisbon house for the very last time. After Mary's death, they keep going over their evidence, trying to come up with an explanation, but they knew they were getting nowhere. Without the Lisbon girls to spy on, their lives felt empty.
The boys are middle-aged men now, still looking at their "exhibits," which are getting dried out and faded. They've made a shrine themselves, but it's not yielding any secrets:
We haven't kept our tomb sufficiently airtight and our sacred objects are crumbling.
In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name. (5.39-5.40)
In the book's final paragraph, the narrator concludes that the essence of the suicides was the girls' selfishness, a lack of caring about anyone else's life and being preoccupied only with their own pain. Does this seem strange coming from boys who'd adored and worshipped these girls, worried about them, wanted to rescue them? Maybe. But these guys are angry as well. They feel they'd been roped into the girls' saga, being made to think they were cared about, and then being subjected to the most horrific sights imaginable. They didn't care that the boys called to them and wanted to love them:
They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn't help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us. […] And we had to smear our muzzles in their last traces, of mud marks on the floor, trunks kicked out from under them, we had to breathe forever the air of the rooms in which they killed themselves. It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, […] calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death […] (5.42)
After taking a moment to catch our breath after this astonishingly beautiful paragraph, Shmoop has to ask: who's really being selfish? After all, did the girls ever ask them to spy on them, steal their stuff, fantasize about them constantly, struggle to figure them out? Nope. The boys seem to be saying that all that matters to them is that they loved the sisters, and that it should have mattered to them, too. Notice that in this paragraph, the girls aren't individuals anymore—just a nameless group that rejected the narrators.
But they're good guys; we'll chalk it up to their frustration and regret. And the fact that, twenty years later, they can't get those Lisbon girls out of their minds.