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Recommended Reading: Jeffrey Euginides, 'The Virgin Suicides'

Posted on: Wednesday, 23 May 2012

In my recent job interview (err, moving to Brussels, not sure if I've mentioned it), the Head asked me three cracking questions (cracking? You can tell I've spent the weekend with a Brummie or two), saying she wanted a 'pretty quick' answer. They were:

1) What's the book you most enjoy teaching to students?
2) What's your desert island book?
3) What should I be reading?

!!!!!!!!!! went my brain.

Oh my. Oh, what uncommunicable joy. I was In My Element. And I talked so much I think she was sorry she'd asked.

I answered the first one (WH Auden, for AS Literature - I do love a bit of miserable early 20th century poetry, you know) and then for the second one I started gushing about Jeffrey Euginides. But which of his books to choose? The Marriage Plot, I babbled, easily the best book I'd read in the last three years, maybe even five years - but recent enough for me to not get bored with it, which is a definite Desert Island-scenario requirement - I mean, why would you want to take something you'd read a hundred times before...? I think I considered the question a little too literally.

And since then I've been meaning to write a Recommended Reading piece about the great J.E. but haven't gotten around to it - mainly out of fear of doing him a disservice. But now I'm on it. And I'm going to start with his first novel - the short but not-very-sweet Virgin Suicides.



Published in 1993, that makes Euginides 33 when he wrote it (does anyone else have this growing sense of panic as you realise your twenties are slipping away from them without a sniff of that level of success and achievement? Just me?) And this wee gem of a novel(la?) is really something. It should be recommended reading for all teenage girls. In fact, scratch that - it should be recommended reading for all teenage boys.

The premise is pretty simple - it's the tragic tale of the five Lisbon sisters. Each one is a very different mix of mischief and shyness and intellectualism and sex appeal and mysticism, but they're also each equally potent in their hold over the affections of the neighbourhood boys. After Cecilia Lisbon's suicide, the surviving sisters are imprisoned in the family home by their overprotective parents, and the boys become a faint lifeline to the outside world. It's no hyperbole to say that these nymphs are worshipped from afar, with the boys calling the house and playing records down the phone to bring them closer to their idols and shed some popular culture light on their solitude. Then each of the sisters kill themselves in some solemn unspoken pact with each other, choosing hanging, gas poisoning or sleeping pills depending on their whim. We're left, like the boys, completely numb at the pointlessness of it all, along with a grudging admiration that their deaths marked their refusal to remain passive in their terrible struggle to find their place in the world:

“They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of used tires stacked higher than the pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of us could ever be. 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.”  

One of the most mystifying aspects of Euginides writing is that, rather suprisingly for an adult American man of Greek descent, he really gets what it's like to be a teenage girl. He gets inside their heads and tells it like it is. And I suppose being a teenager is - well, difficult to put into words.

“Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Withen 5 minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets." And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a 13 year old girl.”  

Like, random digression here - how do writers do that? How the hell did Nabokov write Lolita, essentially getting inside the (actually unnervingly charismatic) mind of a pervert? How do you inhabit something so other? Or is the scary thing that we aren't actually that different after all - man, woman, child, adult, pervert or otherwise?   

Reading it, I remembered acutely the suffocation of teenage years; I wasn't too far away from them when I first read it. The cloying obsession of a crush, treasured scrapbook diaries, the all-eclipsing importance of a school dance (or, in our more British context, a birthday sleepover or a 6th form party, yeah?) Except, crucially, it's an American tale, told with landmarks that are unescapably Yankee - the ubiquitous school dance, furtive booze under the bleachers and a ride home in a car driven by a boy with shaking hands and a carnation in his lapel. And it's this - the style of Euginides sexy, deamy prose - that's the real strength of this book. By all means, it's a grabber of a story, but the real secret of its appeal is really in the writing. It's like the whole story is suffused in 1970s late-afternoon sunlight and filtered through a hazy lomo lens.


Beautiful. And I haven't even got started on Euginides more recent books - Middlesex or The Marriage Plot - yet.

What would you recommend a teenager read? 

8 comments:

  1. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on The Marriage Plot, because I have never felt so mind-numbingly ambivalent towards a book in my life.

    I haven't actually read The Virgin Suicides, though I've seen the film (I know, I know, the shame), so you've persuaded me I need to add it to my list asap!

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    1. Oh Kirsty! I look forward to convincing you otherwise!

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  2. I am now heading to the bookshop to get me a copy of this. I've never actually seen the film either, as I didn't want to watch it before reading the book, then I somehow forgot to read the book itself.

    I'd recommend HG Wells, weirdly enough (pretty much anything by him). I never had a problem, as a teenager, finding and reading 'dramatic' books with hyperbolic explanations of the state of the world/mankind/womankind. I think they've completely got a place, are mostly incredibly well written, and have a lot to teach us. But sometimes teenagers need to listen to someone who's, well, rational. To realise that you don't have to wave your arms demonstratively to care about people, the world and the future, but the quiet and reasoning people can be just as insightful.

    There's my two cents... now I'm off to read The Virgin Suicides.

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    1. I love that - "the quiet and reasoning people can be just as insightful." What category does The Catcher in the Rye fall into I wonder - underwhelming style but a mind-blower of a message about the state of the world?

      Let me know what you think of TVS!

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  3. Middlesex - hands down the most riveting read of my twenties. I spent a whole summer INSIDE reading that because outside was too distracting. Aah, pasty bookworm! In fact, it's now a good few too many years since I read it, maybe it should go on the honeymoon list. The Marriage Plot, I thought was suitably brilliantly written for JE but his characters just didn't have the punch that those in Virgin Suicides or Middlesex did. They were, for what of a better word (and this isn't even one!), just whingey!

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  4. Oh, Middlesex - I was on holiday when I read it and spent most of the time in shade so I could read it properly - you know, like, without any kind of distraction. I was GRIPPED, I tell thee.

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  5. We recently read The Virgin Suicides for book club. Having seen the film when it first came out the plot was familiar so I could enjoy the language.. I love his way of writing & describing.

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  6. I read Middlesex whilst at university and, well, let's just say my performance in that week's coursework was somewhat below par. I've given it as a gift to almost every bookworm I know.

    I'm desperate to read The Marriage Plot, is it out in paperback yet?!

    K x

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