In 1970’s American Suburbia, the Lisbon sisters start to kill themselves.
This won’t be of any great shock based on the title, but trigger warnings abound.
It starts with thirteen-year-old Cecilia, who after a failed attempt at slitting her wrists in the bath, succeeds in ending her life by throwing herself out of a window and impaling herself on an iron fence. It leaves her sisters – Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Therese, ‘stranded in life’, in a home full of the ‘effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space.’
They are coming of age in middle America at a time of tumult. Cecilia’s death is deemed too prosaic for the local news – it is a time when ‘hardly a day passed without some despairing soul sinking beneath the tide of the recession, men found in garages with cars running, or twisted in the shower, still wearing work clothes.’ We are in a country grappling with an existential crisis.
The sisters assume a mythical existence in the town, for none more so than a group of teenage boys who become the book’s Greek chorus, narrating the horrifying events of that summer in the collective ‘we’ from a distance of twenty years into the future. These boys – now men approaching middle-age – are obsessed with the sisters, obsessed with watching them, talking about them, cataloging the minutiae of their lives. They consider themselves to be ‘custodians of the girls’ lives’, forced to ‘wander endlessly down the paths of hypothesis and memory’ in an attempt to piece together what happened.
So although this book is ostensibly about the girls, it’s far more about the boys. If the fact that it’s written by a man and narrated by boys while being about the tragic deaths of young women puts you off (I understand), suspend your skepticism. The male gaze is kind of the point. The mythological rendering and obsessive reconstructing of a narrative about these girls is ultimately futile. Nothing really makes sense, the boys are no closer to knowing the girls or understanding their motivations, and neither is the reader. They remain at arm’s reach.
Eugenides’ writing is utterly transfixing. He evokes a time and a place in such an exacting and poetical way, the headiness and utter misery of teenagerhood, what it means to come of age in American suburbia in the seventies, what’s waiting on the ‘other side’ of childhood. He’s a master of atmosphere – we can vividly imagine the ‘creeping desolation’ that takes over the house in the wake of Cecilia’s death, can smell the pungent odors of the ‘partly bad breath, cheese, milk, tongue film, but also the singed smell of drilled teeth’ – the suffocating decay, a house become a coffin.
It’s spellbinding and horrifying in equal measure, and well deserving of its cult classic status.
‘In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.’
P.S. I decided to pick this one up after hearing Pandora Sykes and Bobby Palmer discuss it on their new podcast, Book Chat. I’d recommend giving it a listen – especially if you’re interested in rediscovering some older books.