Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides

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The Virgin Suicides Summary

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Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides takes place in the early 1970s, set in an American suburb. The reader knows from the start what happens to the five girls, as told from the point of view of a group of men, now middle-aged,twenty years later. At the time their story took place, they were teenagers. A major theme running through the book is that of happiness—but not true happiness. Rather, it is passive and manufactured, producing dire results.

At the start of the book, an ambulance arrives to collect Mary Lisbon’s body. She and her four sisters took their own lives. After this scene, the novel goes back farther in time to show readers the thirteen months that led up to Mary’s death.

Mary’s youngest sister, Cecilia, is found in a bathtub with her wrists slit. Paramedics are able to save her, and bring her to the hospital. After her physical recovery, she returns home and the Lisbon family invites the neighborhood boys over for a party. During this party, Cecilia completes her suicide, sneaking away and jumping from her bedroom window. The cemetery workers are on strike, so her body must remain in the mortuary until the strike ends. Meanwhile, the boys get Cecilia’s diary and read it aloud to one another, though it does nothing to illuminate the motive for her suicide—or her sisters’ motives.

As the neighborhood prepares for autumn and the kids return to school, fourteen-year-old Lux Lisbon catches Trip Fontaine’s eye. Trip is something of a local Romeo, always falling in love. He offers Lux a ride home from school and they kiss in his car. When they are discovered, Lux’s mother grounds her. At this time, news about Cecilia’s suicide hits the media. Articles are published and the local news station interviews suicidal teenagers. The media also initiates a mail campaign to raise awareness to the problem of teen suicide. At school, a Day of Grieving is organized, which the remaining Lisbon sisters avoid by hiding in the bathroom. Although a social worker reaches out to them, the help is not effectual.

The Lisbon girls’ parents allow them to attend Homecoming. Lux goes with Trip, and they are crowned Homecoming Queen and King. Afterward, Lux accompanies Trip to the football field, where they have sex, then Trip dumps Lux, leaving her to walk home alone. She is an hour late for curfew. Mrs. Lisbon punishes Lux by demanding she destroy her rock music records, and she puts the house on lockdown. The girls no longer attend school, and the house falls into disarray, so that they live in a dirty home.

The neighborhood boys—the narrators of the novel—witness Lux meeting with strange men on the roof of the Lisbon home to have sex. After a few weeks pass, she goes to the hospital under the guise of a stomachache, intending to get a pregnancy test. Mr. Lisbon, who teaches at the school, is forced to resign after parents vilify him for the conditions in his home and treatment of his daughters. The Lisbon house begins to emit horrible odors, and though the Lisbon girls pretend to lead normal lives, their physical health is on the decline.

In the spring, city workers come to remove a diseased tree from the Lisbon property. However, the girls protest and the tree remains. As summer wears on, the boys start receiving messages from the Lisbon girls. They play pop songs over the phone to each other and, on June 15, the boys take action at midnight. They enter the house to try to rescue the girls. Lux delays their progress through the house, but when she disappears, they move through the building and find that three of the girls are dead. Mary attempted suicide but survived.

Mary is given medication and therapy, while the media swarms to try to piece together why the Lisbon girls all sought suicide. Both Mary’s treatment and the media’s attempt to “solve” the teen suicide issue are ineffectual, and the community treats Mary as though she is already dead. The remaining Lisbon family put the house on the market, and in the middle of July, when the cemetery strike ends, Mary kills herself with an overdose of pills.

Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon move away from the community. The cemetery is restored, but the rest of the suburb falls into decay. Twenty years later, while the men are narrating this story, it becomes clear that they are still haunted by the suicides of the five Lisbon girls, particularly as they do not have closure as to why the girls killed themselves.

Eugenides’ debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was adapted into a film by Sophia Coppola in the late 1990s that starred Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Josh Hartnett, and Kathleen Turner.