24 January 2012

Review 8: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

"The shocking thing about the five Lisbon sisters was how nearly normal they seemed when their mother let them out for the one and only date of their lives. Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshipped them and who now recall their shared adolescence: the brasserie draped over a crucifix belonging to the promiscuous Lux; the sisters' breathtaking appearance on the night of the dance; and the sultry, sleepy street across which they watched a family disintegrate and fragile lives disappear."

This marks the first (probably not really but I can't think of another example) time I have read the book after I've seen the film which made for an unusual reading experience as the film is such as straight adaptation of the book. Having said that I love the film, and so loved the book as well.

First Line: 'On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.'

I love the Sofia Coppola film, The Virgin Suicides, and I have seen it at least three times although not in the last year or so. The first time I saw it, I didn't even realise it was based on a book, to my shame. It is an unusual experience seeing it the other way round. One of the things I loved about the film was the atmosphere that permeated it, one created in part by the superb soundtrack by Air. The book manages to be the original creator of such a beautiful yet unnerving atmosphere, and without the help of a wonderful soundtrack as well. Credit has to go to Coppola for translating this mood so beautifully but the real skill lies with Eugenides in creating it in the first place. The delicate and melancholy mood really gets under your skin and makes the novel really stay with you. The story is unfamiliar its tragedy and yet unnervingly familiar its its setting of suburban normality.

The Lisbon girls hold the same fascination for us as the readers as the group of boys who were entranced by them as teenagers and have dedicated much of their adult lives to piecing together what happened to the Lisbons. I did find it impossible to picture them as anything other than the actresses who played them but I think all the actors, especially Kirsten Dunst as Lux and Kathleen Turner as their mother, that it isn't frustrating. The story, for those of you who haven't seen the film, is of this strange family who disintegrate in their bland suburban house. We are told at the very beginning of the novel that all five of the Lisbon girls committed suicide whilst they were still teenagers and the novel plots the time from the first suicide of the youngest, Cecilia to the last, Mary. In a slight change from the film, the final four girls don't all manage to commit suicide successfully at the same time. If possible, this makes the novel even more melancholy as Mary lingers a little while before quietly finishing it a little later.

Eugenides is a hugely talented write, the language invites you in and then quietly devastates you as you see the story roll on to its inevitable conclusion. The mystery of the Lisbon girls is never solved in our collective narrators minds despite their interview with people who knew the girls and combing over the newspaper articles they collected. One thing that that was omitted from the film that I found clever was the fact that the girls seemed to have spoken honestly only to their schools guidance counsellor who the boys cannot track down as she was fired from the job. The fact that someone knows what really happened is so intriguingly frustating, the answer being just out of grasp.

Whilst I found that my familiarity with the film did not dampen my enjoyment (enjoyment is not quite the right for this quiet and melancholy book), I would have liked to discover it without knowing the story inside out. It is a carefully put together and unique story that will get under your skin. Fans of the film just definitely seek it out.

Try it if you liked: A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro or The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, I loved this movie, too. I'll have to check out the book.