Friday, May 2, 2008

Revisiting an Author

Like Anna I decided to read an earlier work by an author I enjoyed. This time it is Jeffrey Eugenides, who wrote Middlesex in 2003. His first novel was The Virgin Suicides. With the word suicide in the title, it's not surprising that one occurs on the first page. But it did surprise me. Here's the astounding first sentence of the book: “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 a rope”. Mary is in fact the fifth of the Lisbon sisters to take her own life.

I wrote in an earlier blog (Office Life) of how unusual it seemed to have a novel written in the first person plural. The Virgin Suicides uses this technique as well. In this case the “we” are the neighborhood boys, now in their 30's, who as teenagers feverishly observed the beautiful Lisbon girls – mysterious and unattainable – and collected shards of evidence (a fading photo, pair of high-tops, old cosmetics) which they now try to piece together in hopes of an explanation. Eugenides does a wonderful job of expressing the adolescent confusion the boys felt – and still feel – about the girls. The events have clearly continued to affect their lives and their relationships with women. As a reader, we know only what the boys know, so the girls are an enigma for us as well. I found that frustrating, but very powerful. I think the unexpected death of someone we know always leaves us trying to piece together an explanation. The ending of the book beautifully expresses these feelings of guilt, longing and grief that we all experience as we try to deal with an inexplicable death.

Sofia Coppola directed a film version of the Virgin Suicides which I haven't seen. It's hard to imagine how this novel could be translated, but maybe I'll take a look.

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