I recently had a professor who would spend hours in class talking about the show “Hoarders.” The problem, he would say, goes not only expertly exploited, but is so deeply infused within the characters’ unrequited trauma that the viewer was privy to psychological depths few eyes beyond a mental ward ever see. It’s makes for entertainment, he said in so many words, but
you will emerge feeling dirtier than when you sat down in the first place.
You’ll certainly feel dirtier, but in a clean sort of way, after reading through Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel: a tragedy of displaced beauty that one may very well read in one sitting and emerge from, feeling as though she or he has just sat through a Puccini opera.
The title reveals enough of the plot, however but it to do justice to any of the suicides. There are five, all of them teenage sisters: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Theresa—though they are better known simply as the “Lisbon girls.”
We know that we are going to lose them all after the first three sentences and this places an immediate burden on Eugenides, whose job it becomes, in 250 pages, to make us care about the five sisters, all of them more or less the same, and then to solve the mystery of why five girls without mental disease or ostensibly serious problems would choose to off themselves in the bloom of their youth.
To do this, Eugenides employs a narrator aged twenty years after the time of the suicide. Once head-over-heels in love with the Lisbon girls, as most of the boys were in his school, our unnamed narrator’s feelings have been smoothed over by the years into a slate of melancholic dispassion. He gives incremental details: an interview with the Lisbon parents, evidence exhibits in an unseen appendix, etc. to remind us that he is collecting these memories for the purpose of puzzling together a report.
Even so, in the pages of an environment parched by such prose and dried by pages of (seemingly) prosaic minutia, the Lisbon girls emerge in the ivory-coloured flesh, resplendent and alive. This is, of course, all the more impressive given that the girls have already killed themselves by the time the novel begins. Yet Eugenides, as he proves later with the mastery of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, thrives in this difficult environment of impressionable girlhood.
He captures and bottles the budding emotional complexity of his characters, but unlike Middlesex’s Calliope, there is no release for the Lisbon sisters. Confined to a world where staunch, Catholic parental control has cheated the girls of friends, makeup, rock music, boyfriends, (all the essentials of a girl approaching her feminity), the Lisbon sisters can only eke out the drops of the personality that they are allowed.
The reading is painful, like drawing blood from a paper cut. Yet where there is pain so is there a dab of Neosporin to begin the healing. One should pause, breathe, and linger over embalming images such as this: “suicide is like Russian roulette…with the Lisbon girls the gun was loaded. A bullet for family abuse. A bullet for genetic predisposition. A bullet for historical malaise. A bullet for inevitable momentum.”
All readers are encouraged to read this breathtaking novel; to experience the passion of young love, the electric happiness of a first handhold, the wonderful terror inspired by exposed bras, and, yes; to experience the agony of seeing young beauties we could have loved throw themselves away. In Eugenides’ world of own industrial obsession, the real tragedy is that is has been made inaccessible to the very people it was meant to benefit.
Suicide is not elegant. Eugenides reminds us of its dirty business: of the uprooted and decaying lives that often follow in its wake. You will emerge dirtier; not because of these pure, poor girls, but from the world that drove them to commit madness.