The Virgin Suicides, Page and Screen

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to read for literally years. In April something finally compelled me to pick up The Virgin Suicides. It’s a ballsy title for a debut novel, imbued as it is with both sex and violence. You will find that my review focuses on neither because there are deeper things afoot.

The Virgin Suicides is about the five Lisbon sisters and the neighborhood boys who observe and obsess over them. It’s written in the first person plural, with the boys serving as the collective narrating voice. I can’t recall another book written in this style, and Eugenides uses it to powerful effect. A collective narrator can be disconcerting since the mind wants to attach the voice to a specific character. Instead the story is told by the boys in adulthood, trying to piece together this shared adolescent experience.

Remember in my Hitchcock post when I talked about the male gaze with the female as the object? The Virgin Suicides is another take on that idea. Even though the Lisbon sisters are kept sheltered by their parents (with a few notable exceptions), the boys sexualize anything to do with them. Although they are trying to tell the girls’ story, the boys had very limited contact with them. Despite their zealous observation and collection of Lisbon artifacts, the sisters remain a mystery. The girls’ seclusion seemingly makes them more attractive; the boys are free to imagine them as beyond the mundanities of normal girls.

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Published in 1993, Sofia Coppola adapted the novel to film in 1999. I was curious how the first person plural narration would translate. The Lisbon sisters aren’t supposed to be particularly attractive, made extraordinary only by the boys’ obsession with them, but I expected the film to deviate on that point. And deviate it did, with Kirsten Dunst and four less famous blondes cast as the sisters. The narration was handled with a simple voice-over, not attached to a particular character. The voice-over could share some of the boys’ more poetic musings, but as a standard film convention, it can’t truly capture the inherent strangeness of reading the novel.

This being a Sofia Coppola movie, it has the highly stylized visuals that you would expect. The 1970s aesthetic is great, apart from Josh Hartnett’s haircut. (Or is that the best part? You decide!) My main issue is her portrayal of the Lisbon girls. The novel manages to show how the boys idolize them without insisting that the reader idolize them as well. By letting the camera completely take on the boys’ point of view, Coppola shows the girls in all their sun-drenched dreaminess, but she doesn’t humanize them. It’s a fine line, and others probably say she succeeded. In my opinion, putting the girls on a pedestal for the reader/viewer loses some of the story.

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I was impressed by Eugenides as a writer. He has a singular style, very descriptive and internal, portraying a worldview that’s a bit off-kilter. In an undeniably heavy story, there are countless moments of beauty. I definitely want to read Middlesex as well.

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