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In which Netty takes a peak into the Lisbon sisters’ lives, but still leaves wondering why

February 14, 2012

At one stage during my late teenage years, my mother worked for a bloke who was a fine, upstanding pillar of our small-town community; a decent, church-going family man. He and his wife had five sons, all named after various apostles; the youngest moved in similar social circles to myself and, in fact, had a short-lived dalliance with one of my girlfriends. In his very early 20s, he hanged himself in his parents’ home. I believe his mother found his body. Perhaps a year later, one of his older brothers took his life in the same fashion. And then there were three.

I couldn’t help but think about those brothers, both during and after reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel The Virgin Suicides. It’s a book that’s been around since 1993; it’s been on my radar since Sofia Coppola turned it into a movie, starring Kirsten Dunst, in 1999. But I have studiously avoided it, always intending to read the book first.  Eugenides has put out three novels in almost 20 years – his second, Middlesex, is a Pulitzer Prize winner – and this is the first I have read. But not the last – like Andy, I too intend to get around to The Marriage Plot, released last year, hopefully sometime soon.

Eugenides, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, sets this book in neighbouring Grosse Pointe in the very late 1960s-very early 1970s. It is narrated in first-person plural by one – or a group of – males now aged in their mid-30s who were teenagers when the novel’s events unfolded. Although several boys are mentioned by name throughout these pages, it is never clear which of these is/are the narrator/s. The suicides of the five Lisbon sisters – Therese, 17, Mary, 16, Bonnie, 15, Lux, 14, and Cecilia, 13 – have transfixed and haunted these males their entire lives, turning them into physical and metaphorical custodians of the girls’ legacy. As adults, they turn to each other and their collection of artefacts – mostly gleaned from the Lisbons dumping their lives on the curbside before leaving town (“exhibits 1 to 97”) – and conduct interviews with various witnesses to the saga, including the girls’ parents, to try and make sense of the permanently, perpetually nonsensical.

As the book opens, the Lisbon family – and the neighbourhood – are reeling from the attempted suicide of the youngest girl, Cecilia, long considered something of a misfit. She is discovered in the bathtub, her wrist slit, by neighbourhood boy Paul Baldino, who had accessed the Lisbon home via the neighbourhood storm sewers. A laminated picture of the Virgin Mary is clasped to her chest. When an attending doctor says to her, “You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets”, Cecilia replies: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl”.

In the wake of the near-tragedy, the Lisbons are urged to loosen the tight reins on their daughters, which culminates in a chaperoned basement party from which Cecilia excuses herself, goes upstairs and throws herself from her bedroom window, impaling herself on a fence. Mr and Mrs Lisbon start to again close ranks around their four daughters, but local stoner Trip Fontaine, who develops a crush on Lux, attempts to ingratiate himself with the family. He appeals to Mr Lisbon, also the local high school’s maths teacher, to allow him to take Lux to the homecoming dance. Eventually the parents give their consent as long as all of the sisters attend, each accompanied by a neighbourhood boy, and are returned home within a strict curfew. After being crowned homecoming king and queen, Trip and Lux disappear together, leaving Therese, Mary and Bonnie to go home without their errant sister and face the music.

As a result of Lux’s indiscretion, the Lisbon girls are taken out of school, the family cuts ties with the outside world, the house falls into a state of disrepair, Mr Lisbon eventually loses from his job and the neighbourhood obsession with the family waxes, and then wanes. But then the Lisbon girls initiate contact with the neighbourhood boys, thus kickstarting a cat-and-mouse game of communication through pictures hidden in obscure places, late-night signalling via lamps, candles and flashlights, letters left in mailboxes and finally late-night phonecalls with popular songs of the day played down the lines. The boys are convinced they are engineering the sisters’ eventual salvation, but it turns out that the girls have a very different culmination in mind.

Andy was most impressed by the use of the narrative and the book’s sly, dark humour, and I agree on both points, especially the latter. I was particularly struck by Eugenides’ vivid and evocative recall of 1970s Michigan and was unsurprised to find these streets were his own childhood stomping ground – they could only have been brought to life like this by someone who had himself lived in them. The other thing he captures most beautifully, wistfully and painfully are the unending questions that surround suicide. It is still and always the most dramatic and most selfish of deaths, leaving a “why” that can never be answered, or resolved. Eugenides completely nails this as its aftermath, right down to the deep-seated psychological scars left on the observers, even a couple of decades down the track.

In his blog, Andy quoted the opening sentence of the novel. I’m going to finish with its last:

“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the treehouse, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”

Or, as that old M*A*S*H theme song went, “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please”.

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