James reads The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Words by James Butler

Published on February 19, 2012

I’ve written about my predisposition to the morbid on this here website before, so in an effort not to repeat myself, one would think I would venture to new territory, keep it fresh, walk a new path and plenty of other tired cliches. You would think I would be serious and avoid being pigeonholed as ‘that guy who writes about the books about the drugs and the dying’.

Well friends, no. No I will not. If I’m I’m talking about a book about brothers and sisters, then there has to be mass suicide. Thus, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

From the novel’s opening line, “On the morning the last Lisbon sister took her turn at suicide[,]”  you know how this story is going to end. But what follows is a greek tragedy, with it’s chorus a group of middle-aged men looking back on their life as boys, while trying to piece together the puzzle of these sisters’ brief lives. It’s from this vantage point that the mystery and quasi-divination of the five Lisbon sisters is slowly, yet never fully, unravelled.  What there is of this puzzle is put together through a retelling  of sequential events, from the first suicide of youngest sister Cecilia and the Lisbon family and wider community’s response, to the Lisbon sisters’ one and only date at a high school homecoming and their subsequent grounding – an imprisonment in a house so tightly sealed that it breathed the heady stench of confinement. From all accounts, the stench of confinement has the bouquet of bulk packages of tampons and canned peaches.

The writing itself is ornate, in the first description of the Lisbon sisters our narrators attune that “their faces looked indecently revealed, as though we were used to seeing women in veils.” – one of those phrases that runs around your head until you realise you’re walking around the house in pajamas muttering it ad nauseam. The suicides themselves end up functioning as quite a touching and well-produced metaphor, the loss of the girls’ lives signifying the end of childhood and its innocence, marking the heralding in of an age of trees dying of disease, of air heavy with insects, of tired sagging skin and of high school heartthrobs recovering from alcoholism in midwest rehabs.

Ultimately, The Virgin Suicides is the book I dream of writing. A portrait of lives that is romantic, dark, funny and resonant, contemporary and nostalgic with the deft touch of a writer who knows his craft.

It’s a book to press into the hands of friends, to wrinkle its soft, yielding spine and sleep with tousled in the sheets at the end of your bed.