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Virgin Suicides (French Edition) (French) Mass Market Paperback – December 11, 2000
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No one ever said coming of age was easy, but Eugenides reminds us how truly painful the passage from childhood innocence to adulthood actually is. For most young women social acceptance is paramount so that when Cecilia slits her wrists, we understand that her wearing a frayed, stained old wedding dress like a shabby shroud has resulted in others seeing her as possessing a "deranged harlot look." She is referred to by the narrator as "the weird sister" and as having produced a diary that demonstrated "emotional instability." Cecilia was a dreamer, he notes, who indulged in "marathon baths," presumably to cleanse her body of perceived filth or even abuse of some kind. Mysterious and elusive as were all the Lisbon girls, Cecilia at thirteen can already claim the hearts of several of the neighboring boys, who for years after her death, still obsess over the diary she left behind. Although Cecilia's diary is a minimalistic description of her life and that of her sisters, two themes are apparent, even to the callow male observers. The child saw all her sisters as she saw herself, as if none of them had a separate identity. After all, they were all females and thus their destiny was the same. Moreover, her diary allows the boy observers to believe they understand the fundamental issue of the young women: "We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together." However, this is a bogus understanding because the boys still see the female role as being adolescently "dreamy" and one day involving selecting "colors," a banal future indeed. The narrator further notes that "the girls were our twins." He recognizes on some level what later life will bear out -- that all of them, the boys and the girls, were imprisoned by rules and traditions that didn't allow for personal growth and freedom. Cecilia's desperate efforts were thus undertaken to avoid what would surely be her fate: stifled self-expression and personal enslavement. She is the classic victim -- a blossoming, young, imaginative woman with no place to go.
If social acceptance was lacking for the Lisbon girls, it was their treatment at home that wounded them further in subtle and overt ways. Mr. Lisbon taught school and as a result secured for his daughters the tony environment of the posh private school in which he taught. Poor and neglected, the girls could not begin to assume social prominence or acceptance in such a school. Eventually divorced, Mr. Lisbon is described by the narrator as being overwhelmed by the feminine smells and ambiance of a house dominated by the presence of women. A claustrophobic antipathy on Mr. Lisbon's part is implied by the narrator while there is no indication that he ever actually talked to his children, much less advised them. In fact, it was the stern, unyielding presence of his wife that held sway in the house. It was she who dictated the restrictive rules and meted out discipline and punishments. It was she who allowed the house to remain dirty, full of dust and debris and smeared windows. And it was she who did not allow dating or television or record albums. Because of her edicts, the girls never went anywhere except school and church. They were her prisoners as well as captives of a deteriorating house with a disengaged, brooding father who never talked about Cecelia's death or anything else of consequence despite the fact that the house was full of books. Most importantly, he was annoyed by the "dramatic womanliness" of his daughters. Experiencing antipathy of one kind or another from all sides, was it surprising that one by one the virgins chose suicide?
The economy of the town is described as "grim," the sense of community lacking. No one reaches out to the girls so that their sadness and their repressed longings are unattended to. On the girls' one fateful date, Mary is asked by a boy if she's having fun. She replies, "Do you feel sorry for us?" This question reveals how socially rejected the girls felt. "Do we seem as crazy as everyone thinks?" she further inquires and then confides, "Cecelia was weird, but we're not." Mary, like all the girls, at first wants the acceptance of the boys and society. She then reveals what is most crucial to all of them: "We just want to live. If anyone would let us." In this response she divulges the sense of oppression she and her sisters feel. This one date will be their last, and already Mary seems to glimpse her future as one where opportunity for self-expression will be denied and she, like her sisters, will be consigned to the shabby, disintegrating house forever, like Cecilia was denied the possibility of college. Likewise, Therese is described as "emotionally flat" and "bovine" in her passivity. There is a dullness about her as if she has already surrendered her vitality, as if she, too, has given up hope for a desirable future. Mrs. Lisbon locks the girls up after the one date. Neither parent refers the girls to a psychiatrist to alleviate their sorrow, fearful of tales being told outside the family. So serious and confining is the isolation, especially after the girls are taken out of school, that Lux, the most beautiful and passionate of them all, rebels by fornicating on the roof with a series of unknown boys within full view of the neighborhood. By then, the girls are depressed and driven by yearnings they don't understand. As the hospital psychiatrist Dr. Horicker observes, the four surviving Lisbon girls suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but still no one comes to the girls' aid. The narrator notes that the girls are "barely alive," that they comport themselves like "automatons." So dangerously depressed are they that they relate to the dying elm outside their house and rush to its defense when the town landscape crew comes to destroy it. Their reaction is hysterical, irrational in its insistence on protecting the tree from certain death. At the same time, Mrs. Lisbon will not allow Mary to be a cheerleader or the girls to talk on the phone or mix with the boys on their street. So was it any wonder that "In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws"? Again, this is reminiscent of the teen protagonist in Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog." Is it also any wonder that Lux vehemently asserts: "I want to get out of here."? Dr. Horicker has recommended "outside outlets" for the girls, but instead Mrs. Lisbon insists Lux destroy her music albums and in fact, has hermetically sealed off the lives of her daughters in what the boy observers will later call "a whited sepulcher," (representative of William Styron's motif in "The Confessions of Nat Turner", the Lisbon home. It is a house of the dead, a ramshackle crypt long before the girls' final collaborative act utterly reveals it for what it truly is.
The narrator alludes to the "deep normalcy of the girls," implying that their adolescent longings were typical. These were not psychotic females; they were not mentally ill. They were driven to their doomed trajectories by an unsympathetic society. As Mrs. Karafilis, the one neighbor who knew the girls, claims, "No one is happy." The Michigan suburbs are fake and uniform, the news is manufactured, like so many cars built in the locale, Gross Pointe, Michigan. It is a vast and bleak place distinguished by its planned artificiality. The girls, she implies, were incapable of indefinitely adjusting to such a life and environment. They were too intelligent, too imaginative, too united in their suffering to accept such banality any longer. Lux is perhaps the girl most illustrative of this point. Deeply passionate, mischievous and intelligent, she clearly had issues with the way society treated women. Since promiscuity is the ultimate reaction of the true rebel, we have to acknowledge that she was a rebel in not only defying her parents attempts to control the girls, but in the sense of believing that her sexual nature had a right to be expressed, even if the result was not particularly satisfying for her. She is used by the decadent and shallow Tripp for his own satisfaction then rejected for complying with his sexual demands. In this respect she is a metaphor of the times when men were entitled to "use" and then reject any woman. Unfortunately his rejection of Lux and the resultant abuse of her sisters by their mother set into play the final solution as well as the pattern of Lux's subsequent promiscuity. All this illustrates the extreme vulnerability and lack of freedom available to women coming of age in the seventies. Sadly, this incident also illustrates the vacuity of men then and their horrifying and undeserved sense of entitlement. Yet Tripp Fontaine never gets over Lux; in the end he is a victim of his own narcissism, selfishness and superficiality, as are the other neighborhood boys, now men of no particular consequence.
Although the emphasis in the book is on the female, the males suffer as well. They are caught in an elaborate charade of male courting and machismo. It is a stick-figured dance that leads them to drugs and sexual exploitation but more importantly to the kind of denial that renders fantasy of paramount importance, if only to be able to rest one's heart and mind on something besides the dreariness of their suburban lives with boring automaton females. As adults the neighborhood men still recall Lux and all the Lisbon girls' as their mystery women, their heart throbs, the ones who eluded their male advances and who still define the mature men's image of female perfection and hope. For all of them the mementos of the girls -- Lux's bra, the pictures of the Virgin, Cecelia's tattered wedding dress, are reminders of the staleness of life after the brief romantic saga of the Lisbon girls. The memory provided color and resonance to their lives before the demands of adulthood rose to claim them. What is particularly chilling is that the boys, who were so charmed by the girls, lacked the emotional depth to understand them and thereby help them. Too focused on the triviality of suburban life, such as sports and yard maintenance, tuning their cars, watching girls and doing their homework, they alas couldn't begin to understand, not only the girls' needs, but the truths the girls' intellectuality and experience enabled them to grasp. For it is only the Lisbon girls who glimpse the emptiness of the life that awaits them as Baby Boomers, and so they surrender that heritage, shedding it as easily as a snake sheds its skin.
This is a tragic book about sorrow, loss, despair, confusion, guilt, rejection -- all those dark aspects of life most of us suppress rather than scrutinize too deeply, lest the scrutiny unleash an insurmountable despair. The narrator is quick to define the girls' suicides as "simple selfishness." He observes that "The girls took into their own hands decisions better left to God. They became too powerful to live among us, too self-concerned, too visionary, too blind." Indeed, had the girls lived they would have been a threat to their shallow male counterparts. Isn't that true of any prophet or prophetess? This is the paradox of the gifted woman; she sees too deeply and has too much going for her. Was it simply too much to ask that these young females, so perspicacious and so wise, sanction the paternalistic society of entitled men and unsympathetic neighbors and subject themselves to its inane rituals? Eugenides seems to argue against accepting such a destiny. Although the girls made plain by their demise the nasty truths of society in the seventies, still "All wisdom is paradox," and the girls were that as well. Beautiful, alluring, intelligent and creative, they were "of this time, of that place" and thus did not belong to the times, like roses among the ashes of modernity. Alas, "they are alone in suicide, which is deeper than death," the narrator assures himself, thereby acquiescing to the myth that he and his friends are any more at peace or more fulfilled than those souls slumbering beneath the silent earth.
This is an ingenious novel -- as imaginative as it gets, with superb language and overall strong narration. The device of the "unreliable narrator" works, one voice containing the many voices of the other males and thereby acknowledging the group-think mentality of boys then and perhaps of Baby Boomer men now. The mood and tone of the book is elegiac and rhapsodic, like a lingering melody of powerful truths. For all of us who still remember our adolescent pain and confusion, it is a book that acknowledges the complexity of the human journey, its blending of the poetic and the dissonant, its seeming madness.
"Always fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts," Virgil warned us in his mythic "Aenead." This "gift" of Eugenides, a Greek, is a double-edged sword. Nevertheless, it is one worth savoring even if it lacerates the spirit in the process. This is an example of literary fiction at its finest.
Plus, I thought this was a very original style of narration. There was just something different about this book. Especially if you like the strange or quirky, you should give this a try!
The story is set in the 1970's and is about the narrator's obsession with a group of five sisters who all killed themselves and why they did it. These five beautiful and bright girls, do not fit into the world they were in, they despaired that no one understood them or that not anyone cared about how their lives would turn out, even their own parents. They took their own lives in protest.
Going from childhood to adolescence is a painful one, but these girls seemed to have more difficulty than most. Cecilia, was called "the weird sister" by the narrator, but at 13 already claimed the hearts of many boys in the neighbourhood, whom long after her death still obsessed over her.
Even at school they were never accepted by their peers, they were at a private school because their father worked there, but they couldn't have the lifestyle that went with it, leaving them outcasts by their peers. Their father eventually divorced their mother, but had very little interaction with the girls at all. Their mother was the ruler in the house; she was the one who allowed the house to stay in the state it was in, dirty and living in squalor. She didn't allow them to do the things normal teenagers go to do like date, watch television, read magazines. They went to church and school and that was it.
The girls feel trapped and isolated, is it any wonder they committed suicide, they felt it was their only way out. No one helped them or reached out to them in anyway.
By reading The Virgin Suicides I was reminded by how much I take for granted the opportunities I have available to me as a woman, compared to those of past generations who did not have such opportunities.