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17th August
2010
written by Steph

So way back in 2009, I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, because I had heard it was a really engrossing page-turner that was super fun to read, and its 500+ pages really just whipped by. I did largely enjoy the novel, but wound up thinking it was good, not great; it did, however, pique my interest in Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, which is perhaps better known for its film adaptation. Well, by everyone but me, because I have of course not seen the movie (though I have now rented it from Netflix, so it’s only a matter of time!). On a whim, I recently decided now was the right time to finally try on Eugenides’ debut and see whether it was a better fit than Middlesex. The premise was certainly just as tantalizing as Middlesex (the story of a hermaphrodite): The story revolves around the suicides of the five young daughters of the Lisbon family, although predominantly it looks at the effects of the youngest daughter’s suicide (the first to commit the deed) on the rest of the family. Through the eyes of an anonymous group of boys who have been long fascinated by the beautiful and mysterious Lisbon girls, we watch as the family unravels and slowly spirals into decay and derelict dysfunction. Throughout it all, the boys try to solve the mystery of what caused Cecilia Lisbon to jump to her death. It’s hard not to feel like an obsessed, mesmerized teenage boy while reading this book, which is perhaps a testament to Eugenides’ transcendental powers as a writer, since last time I checked I was neither a teenager (phew!) nor a boy (double phew!). The novel begins with a bang, describing Cecilia’s first suicide attempt (which made me lightheaded and queasy), and pretty much does not let up from that point on. It sinks its claws into you good and I’m not sure what reader wouldn’t hungrily read this book to its grisly conclusion. As Kay over at the Infinite Shelf said in her recent review, this book is dark and bleak, but it’s also incredibly compelling. From the very beginning Eugenides imbues the Lisbons with the quality of “other” and like flies caught in a black widow’s web, we as readers are helpless to resist their inscrutable charms. Given the title, it is perhaps not surprising that this is a book that is thick with sexuality; the hormones that toil and trouble throughout its pages are nearly enough to make you break out in acne or post up pin-ups from TigerBeat magazine (does that still exist?) on your wall (I can only imagine how enthusiastically Tony would respond to the Jonas Brothers and their ilk covering our walls…). Reading The Virgin Suicides, you can’t help but wonder if things might have turned out differently if the Lisbon girls had had the opportunity to do those very things. Because at the heart of this novel, it feels like it’s looking at not just suicide, but what can happen when normal, happy girls are suffocated and smothered, made to feel ashamed of their sexuality, forced with clipped wings to roost forever at home. I think the book nicely penetrates the fog of confusion and malaise that often permeates adolescence as we work to figure out our place in the world and struggle to take ownership of our own lives. Unfortunately for the Lisbon girls, they never had that chance. In some ways I was also reminded of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road in terms of the general oppressiveness that pervades this novel that takes place in placid suburbia. The picture-perfection of the neighborhood and its families is all a superficial veneer that hastily shellacs over the cracks and fault lines in each home. From substance abuse to mafia connections to suicide, this Michigan suburb had it all. One wonders whether the pressure to appear perfect and hunky dory amidst the utter bland banality of the suburbs didn’t add to the pressure that caused the Lisbon family to implode. When I read Middlesex I thought that Eugenides was a good storyteller, but I wasn’t entirely sure about his skills as an author. The Virgin Suicides very much impressed me in terms of the writing and prose – Eugenides’ words sparkle and electrify, sometimes with their emotional evocations, sometimes with their vivid and apt imagery. I certainly felt this was an artful book that had a psychological complexity that was nicely enhanced by the deftness of the language. I don’t often do this, but I happily read The Virgin Suicides over the course of a single day, rarely surfacing for breaths of liberty. I was engrossed and engaged from start to finish and sometimes that’s really all you need to know about a book. While I might feel that Middlesex is somewhat overhyped, I probably feel that The Virgin Suicides is under-read. It’s a quiet, disconcerting novel, but one that excited me as a reader. It could have been gimmicky, but it wasn’t. I certainly hope that Eugenides has more like this up his sleeve; if so, I look forward happily to his next novel. Rating: 4 out of 5

20 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed Middlesex although I did have issues with the over-long historical bit. I own The Virgin Suicides and have been saving it, as I’m sure I’ll love it. Your review confirms this. I hope to get to it later this year.

  2. 08/17/2010

    The Virgin Suicides is an awesome book and (gasp! I can’t believe I am saying this because it is so rarely true) an even better movie!

  3. 08/17/2010

    I have yet to read either of those books, but both are on my shelf. I have a feeling I’m going to start with The Virgin Suicides.

  4. 08/17/2010

    I liked this book, and I know what you mean about feeling like one of the boys when you’re reading it. I hadn’t thought about it in relation to Revolutionary Road, but now that you mention it, I can see that connection. As for Middlesex, I’ve started-but-stopped it 3 times. I want to like it as much as I liked The Virgin Suicides, but I just don’t know… 3 tries might be the limit.

  5. Kathleen
    08/17/2010

    I’ve not seen the movie either so I can still enjoy this one without the movie spoiling it for me. I have Middlesex on my shelves at home already but have just never gotten around to read it (sadly). I went to the library at lunch to try and get this one but they had no Eugenides on their shelves at all. I guess my time to read his work is still in the future! Your review is fantastic but this is the line that absolutely got me to rush out and try to get this book at the library, “The picture-perfection of the neighborhood and its families is all a superficial veneer that hastily shellacs over the cracks and fault lines in each home”

  6. 08/17/2010

    @ Jackie: I think I actually liked the beginning of Middlesex more than than the ending, which I felt was a bit slapdash. That said, it did take a long time for the purported crutch of the novel to appear, so I agree the pacing was not stellar there. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one!
     
    @ Stephanie: I’m so excited to hear you enjoyed the film so much! It’s rare that I prefer the movie to the book, so I’m curious to see how I feel!
     
    @ Amanda: Given the amount of YA fiction you read, I’ll be interested to see how you think this compares, given that it’s not necessarily aimed at YAs but does focus on that age group.
     
    @ charley: I think if you’ve tried Middlesex three times, you’ve given it a fair go! And you know I thought this one was superior, so if you’re only going to read one Eugenides, I think this is it.
     
    @ Kathleen: I’m so glad you had such a positive response to this review! I think this book is well worth your time to find, but Middlesex is also a good book when you’re in the mood for something quite epic. I hope you enjoy them both!

  7. 08/17/2010

    I took a look at your Middlesex review, and it seems we felt similarly about it. I liked it enough that I do still want to read The Virgin Suicides, so I’m glad to hear that you did like it. That bodes well for me!

  8. 08/18/2010

    I have read Middlesex, but not this one, though I did see the movie a long time ago. I am really intrigued that this one reminded you a bit of Revolutionary Road, and think that I want to read this book now. I hadn’t deliberately stayed away from this book, it’s just that after seeing the movie, the urgency to read the book was somewhat dampened. Great review! I am glad that you really liked the book and also that you read it in one sitting!

  9. 08/18/2010

    I kept hoping that one or more of them would make it, even if Eugenides made clear from the start that it was not to be.

    Haven’t seen the movie, but if I had to chose a director to pull it off successfully I would also go for Sofia Coppola.

  10. 08/18/2010

    @ Theresa: Hopefully you feel as I did about this one, in that you find it a stronger, better book! I think it’s a vastly superior read to Middlesex in almost every possible way.
     
    @ zibilee: I haven’t seen the movie and kind of wonder about how successful it could be, but I’ve heard it’s good so I’m going to give it ago! I hope you give this one a try – it’s really very good!
     
    @ Alex: Yes, I had that weird hope as well that someone might make it, that they would break free, even though you knew it was a vain hope from the get-go. But I think that’s what makes for good writing that Eugenides can make us want what we know we can’t have!

  11. 08/18/2010

    The thing that has always struck me about Virgin Suicides is its point of view—what I’m almost positive is its most standout feature. I read it several years ago, so now I can’t remember the details about all these oppressive things you mention (like substance abuse and mafia connections), but I’ve always been left with the feeling that you can’t quite figure out why they committed suicide. And that’s completely a point of view thing. Since it’s told from outsiders, they’re trying to figure it out from a distance, theorizing about all these smothering factors, and the reader is working from the same perspective. It’s a very interesting book about suicide because of that. You never REALLY feel for the Lisbon girls, not as if you KNEW them. I’ve always felt somewhat devoid of emotion about it because the story is just too…queer, or something.

    I think I need to grab this from bookshelf at home when I visit next and re-read.

  12. mee
    08/18/2010

    Oh and this is where we differ, because Middlesex is one of my favorite books of all time! I loved loved it and thought I could read it forever. I’ve been saving Virgin Suicides for the perfect time, as Eugenides just wrote 2 books so far. He’s definitely one of my favorite authors!

  13. 08/19/2010

    @ Kari: I think you’re spot on about the perspective adding to the uncertainty that pervades the book. The conclusion at the end is that we can’t know why the girls kill themselves because we can only speculate on what outsiders have concluded or observed. There is always a bit of a wall between the reader and the Lisbon girls, which I think adds to the allure, since they’re enigmas that are never fully cracked.
     
    @ mee: I started off really enjoying Middlesex, but I felt it lost focus near the end or something… It just seemed to unravel for me, and I felt a bit unsatisfied at the end. I definitely preferred this to it, but I can understand why others love Middlesex! I hope you enjoy this one when you finally read it!

  14. Steph, The Virgin Suicides is a favourite of mine and I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. Like you I was disappointed with Middlesex and agree that it is over-hyped while TVS is under-read.

    I was thrilled to discover last month that Eugenides is writing a new novel, “a campus love-story” and it will be highly anticipated by this reader.

    I have reread The Virgin Suicides a couple of times in the one sitting and watched the movie adaptation a few times (Sofia Coppola) and it never fails to feel oppressive and claustrophobic; the power of memory is so strong and yet also so fragile as if it is a memento that is going to turn to dust it has been touched and remembered so many times.

  15. 08/20/2010

    It sounds like that had quite an effect on you! Its obviously well-written or else it wouldn’t hold your interest like that. The synergy with Revolutionary Road is interesting. You’ve written a fine review here which certainly lets me get a good impression of the book

  16. 08/20/2010

    @ Tom C: Yes, it was certainly a palate-cleanser as far as reads go, and I really enjoyed it a lot. I’d be curious to see if anyone else who has read this one and Rev Road felt there were similarities or whether that was just me being hypersensitive!

  17. kay
    08/23/2010

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book too, Steph! It has been one of my favorites this year and I’m looking forward to discovering Middlesex, too. Your review also makes me curious about reading Revolutionary Road; it’s been on my to-read list forever, maybe it’s time I finally get to it!

  18. 08/24/2010

    @ kay: I’d love to see what you think of Rev Road (as I fondly call it). I’d especially be interested to see whether you find it similar to this book in any way!

  19. 08/29/2010

    I agree with your thoughts on Middlesex, it was a good but not great book for me. After Middlesex I did not feel tempted to pick up this book, but your review is changing that. I am now all curious to read this book.

  20. 08/30/2010

    @ Nishita: I definitely think this is a better book than Middlesex, so I wouldn’t rule it out if you didn’t find Middlesex to be a game-changer. For what it’s worth, I soon sold back Middlesex right after reading it, but I’m going to keep my copy of The Virgin Suicides.

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