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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

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To purchase The Virgin Suicides

Title: The Virgin Suicides
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993
Length: 249 pages
Availability: The Virgin Suicides - US
The Virgin Suicides - UK
The Virgin Suicides - Canada
Virgin Suicides - France
Die Selbstmord-Schwestern - Deutschland
Le vergini suicide - Italia
Las vírgenes suicidas - España
DVD: The Virgin Suicides - US
The Virgin Suicides - UK
The Virgin Suicides - Canada
Virgin Suicides - France
The Virgin Suicides - Deutschland
  • The Virgin Suicides was made into a film in 1999, directed by Sofia Coppola and starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, and Josh Hartnett
  • Also published in French as Les vierges suicidées

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging if not entirely successful novel of adolescence and the mysteries of the opposite sex

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 8/7/1994 .
The Independent A- 19/6/1993 Peter Guttridge
London Rev. of Books . 5/8/1993 .
The LA Times . 20/6/1993 Kristin McCloy
Newsweek . 19/4/1993 David Gates
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/6/1993 Alice Truax
The NY Times . 19/3/1993 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/4/1993 Suzanne Berne
Southern Review . Spring/1994 Michael Griffith
TLS . 18/6/1993 Gordon Burn
Yale Review . 10/1993 Walter Kendrick
Die Zeit . 19/5/2004 Ursula März

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "The Virgin Suicides takes the dark stuff of Greek tragedy and reworks it into a mesmerizing, eccentric, frequently hilarious American fantasy about the tyranny of unrequited love and the unknowable heart of every family on earth-but especially the family next door." - Entertainment Weekly

  • "Eugenides' assured mixture of heartfelt nostalgia -- suburban life has seldom been recalled so lovingly -- and dark humour makes for a mesmerising read. Although not without flaws, The Virgin Suicides is wonderfully original." - Peter Guttridge, The Independent

  • "In the hands of someone else, the story of five teen-age girls, all from the same family, taking their own lives might be a dreadful tale, dark and depressing. But despite the ghoulish nature of his subject, or perhaps because of it, Jeffrey Eugenides never loses his sense of humor. Mordant to be sure, and always understated, Eugenides' sense of the absurd is relentless (.....) The other outstanding feature of Eugenides' novel is its voice: first person plural." - Kristin McCloy, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Eugenides is one of those rare writers who can manage sympathy and detachment simultaneously-and work small wonders with words while he's at it. As The Virgin Suicides puts its heroines through hell, its readers, weirdly enough, will be delighted." - David Gates, Newsweek

  • "That the narration's persistence is unnatural is everywhere evident but nowhere plainly admitted -- because it's the whole point of the book. At its core, The Virgin Suicides is about artifice itself, is about the way an impassioned imagination can bring the dead back to life, if only metaphorically. For all its experimental trappings (trappings which may, at times, look like gimmickry), The Virgin Suicides is in many ways an oldfashioned novel. One of its most pleasing attributes is that despite the postmodern pyrotechnics, the book is deeply felt, lushly written, even heartrending. Emotion always lies just behind the legerdemain." - Michael Griffith, Southern Review

  • "The book is a tour de force on several counts. (...) The Virgin Suicides is the only novel I know of that's narrated by us, a collective voice, belonging to these no-longer-young men. The device is a gimmick (.....) Eugenides' best achievement is no gimmick; it's the powerful evocation of how we feel as the twentieth century nears its whimpering end." - Walter Kendrick, Yale Review

  • "Das alles, die ganze Geschichte, ist so monströs, so packend ungeheuerlich -– wie unwahrscheinlich. Wir haben es hier mit einem Roman zu tun, in dessen Beschreibung die Wörter komplex und experimentell schon deshalb nicht fehlen dürfen, weil er den Ehrgeiz besitzt, gleichzeitig so realistisch, so zeit-, gegenstands- und mentalitätsnah zu sein wie Salingers Fänger im Roggen und so symbolisch, modell- und parabelhaft wie Kafkas Schloss." - Ursula März, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Virgin Suicides is a novel of shared experience. Two separate groups dominate it: the men -- now "approaching middle age, a few of us balding" -- who recall their youth, and the five suicidal Lisbon sisters they knew back then. It is a novel about the almost unknowable opposite sex, desired but largely unattainable, always a mystery.
       The choice of narrators -- a group rather than an individual, using the first person plural ("we") -- is an unusual one. Here men recall a time when they weren't yet fully formed as individuals, when experience was communal, shared and puzzled over together. Some of those included in the 'we' are identified by name, but the collective is of indeterminate size and composition. Individuals' experiences add to the story but are subsumed by it; most are merely variations on similar experiences common to middle-class suburban American life in that time (the mid-seventies or so). There are individual variations, but almost none when it comes to the Lisbon sisters, a feminine ideal in how they are shrouded in mystery and unattainable, and the boys' fascination with them -- lasting even into adulthood (a lost romantic ideal they can cling to) -- is the central shared one. The Lisbon sisters are (and remain) the mystery that is the opposite sex personified.
       Just as the boys are one large group, so to are the Lisbon sisters, and sex and boys (or men) are no clearer to them. They are five very different girls -- and the narrators point out these differences -- and yet, more than not, they are simply 'the Lisbon sisters' -- and largely indistinguishable (much as all men probably are alike to them). On a rare occasion when they anticipate interaction with boys (to go to a dance) "the girls waited for the boys in individual ways" -- but once the boys arrive they meld together again:

their dresses and hairdos homogenized them. Once again the boys weren't sure which girl was which.
       It's not just that the boys have difficulty differentiating between them; the girls, too, see themselves as one. One keeps a diary, in which:
Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity. It's often difficult to identify which sister she's talking about, and many strange sentences conjure in the reader's mind an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads
       They are, ultimately, also inseparable, unable to survive once they no longer are whole: the suicide of one ultimately leads the others to follow suit.

       The Virgin Suicides is an odd reconstruction of that adolescent time, the narrators somewhat disturbingly obsessing about it. The book is a careful account of that year of suicides, and trophies from that period have been kept, "sacred objects" listed as Exhibits #1 through #97. Now, decades later, the trophies are fading and falling apart, however; the puzzle they thought they eventually could piece together instead growing more elusive -- a feeling nicely evoked by Eugenides. The narrative -- a detailed, close account, complete with interview-testimony from many of the main actors (some of whom the narrators have gone to considerable trouble to track down) -- is like a last effort to hold onto the story and try to make sense of the mystery.

       The Virgin Suicides begins with several suicides: a brief mention of the last, and then, jumping back a year to where it all began, the first -- which was, in fact, a failed attempt rather than an actual suicide. There are five Lisbon sisters -- Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese (aged, in order, thirteen through seventeen when the events begin to unfold) -- and it is Cecilia who does herself in first, in dramatic fashion.
       The Lisbons -- the parents included -- are always a family apart. The suburbs are a hive of communal activity, and Eugenides describes many group-activities (especially of cleaning -- leave-raking, house-cleaning (there's an annual big fish-fly problem in town)), but the Lisbons remain largely separate. Only Mr.Lisbon is a bridge between family and community, but even that eventually breaks. A big part of the Lisbons' problem is their isolation, largely forced on them by the insanely protective Mrs. Lisbon.
       A rare inversion of this is found in religion: the Lisbons go to church while -- surprisingly -- none of the narrators do:
None of us went to church, so we had a lot of time to watch them, the two parents leached of color, like photographic negatives, and then the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and rufffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh.
       The blanched parents (the mother especially) are too domineering, and what attempts there are at allowing the girls to live a normal life come too late. After Cecilia's first suicide attempt the Lisbons do allow a party to be held by the girls, and boys (including the narrators) are invited; it ends, of course, in disaster. A later second attempt at allowing the (surviving) girls a taste of normal teen life, when they are allowed to go to a dance with some boys, also goes wrong, leading to their complete and ultimately fatal isolation.
       The suicides don't follow in a neat order, one sister after another dropping at regular intervals. It is Cecilia's that dominates the book. She was the youngest -- and already considered "the weird sister" -- and her death also sets her apart from the others; some choose to remember her "as apart, a freak of nature". Nevertheless, her act leads to the increasing isolation of the already always distant family which eventually culminates in the only release the surviving sisters can imagine (turning away from the alternative the narrators might be able to provide).
       The suicides aren't all virginal, either; the youngest surviving sister, Lux, becomes a real slut, sleeping around (on the family roof no less) But sex offers neither satisfaction nor escape (beyond in the moment) for her. Nor for those who idolise the girls: the boy who started it all with Lux, Trip Fontaine, recounts: "I just got sick of her right then". Sex is the ultimate demythification; it's no wonder the other sisters choose death before it.

       Eugenides offers a neat portrait of suburban American life in what seem like easier times. Like the Lisbon sisters, the entire community lives in a bubble (which the suicides help burst). It is a time of innocence; the first suicide appears merely to be an aberration, the world coming crashing down only a year later, when the other sisters follow suit.
       Eugenides does make it too easy to blame the nutty, domineering parents that won't allow their daughters to be touched by real life, but it is a compelling picture he paints of this dysfunctional family. The odd approach -- the first person plural narrators, the communal memory -- generally works well: the voice is a convincing one, even -- or especially -- in all its uncertainty (despite all the years of pondering over these events). He's particularly good with objects: the house, the belongings, each examined as though it might be a piece of the puzzle. Eugenides does overdo description on occasion, starting well but going just a bit too far, as when he records a description of someone kissing Lux:
He tasted first the grease of her Chap Stick, then the sad Brussels-sprout flavor of her last meal, and past that the dust of lost afternoons and the salt of tear ducts. The peach schnapps faded away as he sampled the juices of her inner organs, all slightly acidic with woe.
       It's an odd book, with more artistry (or at least craftsmanship) than feeling, and too unlikely to be fully convincing -- yet with enough elements so true to life and well observed that it does provide repeated shocks of recognition. Worthwhile, and intriguing.

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The Virgin Suicides: Reviews: The Virgin Suicides - the film: Jeffrey Eugenides: Other books Jeffrey Eugenides under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jeffrey Eugenides was born in 1960. He currently lives in Berlin.

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© 2004-2023 the complete review

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