Martyrs on the Block

The Virgin Suicides

by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 249 pp., $18.00

During the last decade, some writers from the generation that grew up in the suburbs have returned to this previously discredited site and reinvented it. Neighborhoods that once seemed impervious to magic of any kind have become increasingly popular settings, in novels and movies, for the fabulous and the bizarre. Beautiful women appear naked on respectable front porches, strange constellations rise in the night sky over identical rooftops; fathers and punks engage in epic battle on modest front lawns. Alice McDermott, David Lynch, Alice Hoffman, and Steven Spielberg all explore fantasies of suburbia with varying measures of affection and irony. Jeffrey Eugenides, who has just published his stylish novel The Virgin Suicides, belongs in this list.

Eugenides, a first-time novelist, is a little like a man who offers to juggle several incongruous and life-threatening objects before your eyes. You’re not sure if he can pull it off, and you’re not sure about your motives in watching him try. He may be too ambitious and set himself on fire, or knock you out with a bowling pin; but it’s hard to turn away. On his first page, he makes it clear that his title means what it says, and that he plans to spin a dreamy, elegiac tale from its terrible promise:

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 the rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Five teen-aged sisters commit suicide under the same roof in less than a year and a half and under three hundred pages; can Eugenides keep all these balls in the air—horror, humor, mystery, sadness—and manage to suspend your disbelief as well, without making you furious at him or disgusted with yourself?

Even the structure of the novel hinges on an outrageous romantic conceit. Many years after the Lisbon tragedy, an investigation into the girls’ suicides is undertaken by the guys from their old neighborhood. Now on the brink of middle age, they are still scarred by the girls’ deaths—afflicted with a sort of Annabel Lee syndrome—and they make up the shadowy Greek chorus that tells the story. In order to learn why what happened happened, these amateur detectives have returned to the scene of the crime: the suburbs where they grew up. Specific references that would suggest too strongly a particular year or location have been carefully smoothed away, while every predictable landmark, from the tree house to the…

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