I recently read Jeffrey Eugenides debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, for the first time and I loved it. I was so moved by the text that I didn’t plan on writing about it for this blog; I didn’t think I could put exactly how I felt into words. But days later I find myself still haunted by the prose. I keep asking myself the same question: should I have read this novel in my formative years?
I always was one of those teenagers y’know? The sort who romanticised everything in reaching out to find meaning. The sort who would turn to song lyrics and Bukowski poetry to find an outlet of raw emotional expression. As you may imagine, coming-of-age narratives therefore were right up my alley. When I was in primary school I was encouraged to read The Catcher in the Rye by a teacher and I hated it; I thought Holden Caulfield was a boring entitled character. Yet, after puberty I found myself holding him up as an icon of my rage about growing up. I remember being enraptured with The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, because it seemed to encapsulate the feeling of being surrounded by friends, yet absolutely terrified that you are alone. I remember reading The Bell Jar in sixth form and to this day I still picture my life through the image of a fig tree with dying fruit. Even cinema was important to me. One of the most important moments in my emotional development was the second time I watched (500) Days of Summer and realised that Tom didn’t love Summer, just the idea of her.
The Virgin Suicides could have so easily fitted in with all of those works and provided many life-lessons in those confusing teenage years. In his novel, Eugenides explores the weird little phenomenon that is your first crush. You know how it goes: you begin the hormonal assault that is puberty and for the first time you start to feel attracted to someone else. But this feeling is new to you, you don’t understand it, and this crush so easily morphs into an obsession; their actions dramatised into romantic gestures, every part of their being so demonstrably perfect etc. I remember exactly my first crush like this, I remember telling myself that I was madly in love with her. But obviously I wasn’t “in love”, I just loved what she represented – all my new pubescent feelings projected onto her.
This is feeling that The Virgin Suicides seeks to explore. This is apparent from the very title. After all, is it not telling that the book is not actually about the five Lisbon girls that kill themselves, but rather the boys across the street. The boys don’t love the Lisbon girls, how could they when they barely know them? Instead the boys are in love with the ideas they represent. Their new preoccupation with the mysterious opposite sex is made literal in the five isolated, shy girls across the street. The girls never actually really feature in the book. Of course they are significant plot points, but we never really understand them or find out why exactly they end their lives. The Lisbon girls that are presented in the text are constructs of the boys themselves, five “manic pixie dream girls” that never have a voice of their own. In this sense, The Virgin Suicides could have been a useful book to read in my earlier teens due to how it dramatises the processes of young love. It seems to impart the warning that these relationships are neither organic or equal, but rather constructed figments of a persons imagination.
But truth be told, I am very glad that I read The Virgin Suicides when I was twenty one, instead of fifteen. The “love” the boys have for the girls is played so straight-faced, so innocent and pure, that I feel if I read it in the throng of my personal first love I would have committed to a similar warped obsession of my own. In the real world, most people will grow out of the mindset of their teenage years – in other words, people learn that love is something earned over time – but in The Virgin Suicides the male narrators never do. The novel ends with the boys, all now middle aged, turning round and admitting that they still “love” the Lisbon girls; their suicides mean that the boys will never see behind the constructs they made to understand the girls as they really were, so they remain obsessed with the perfect images. Because I myself had grown up, and left my own teenage mindset firmly behind, I read the text in a different way than I had as a teen. One of the key themes of the text is nostalgia. The boys are remembering their crushes they had as teens and holding up them as examples of a better, more pure time. But there’s an inherent irony to this within Eugenides’ text that I would have missed as a teen. It’s easy to look to your youth as a better time, as the boys do, but looking back you realise that they really weren’t: you never were as cool as you thought you were, you weren’t actually madly in love with that girl you dated for a bit at fifteen etc. Part of growing as a person is realising these facts, literally out-growing your mindset and lustful obsessions. But the men in The Virgin Suicides have never grown up. They have existed in a state of arrested development for decades.
It is only by reading The Virgin Suicides as an adult that you understand the irony Eugenides seeks to explore within young love and nostalgia as a whole: the reason the boys are so nostalgic about the childhood and first crush, is because they never developed enough to understand women as people rather than a concept. The novel ends with the men still obsessing about their lack of understanding concerning the Lisbon girls, rather than accepting it and moving on.
As I bring this to a close I want to look at that title again: The Virgin Suicides. It seems obvious that this is a reference to the five young girls who die, but it can’t be. After all the boys describe in vivid details the sex life of the fourteen year old Lux Lisbon. Instead I suggest that the title refers to the chorus of men who narrate the text. Though not literal virgins, the word calls reference to the concept of immaturity, a signifier that you have not really come of age. Thus in this sense, all the boys will die a virgin because they simply never really developed emotionally into adulthood. My enjoyment of this text comes from my ability to recognise that these wistful men are actually just boys who will never grow up.