adult, book, book expectations, books, death, expectations, fiction, imaginings, jeffrey eugenides, life, Lisbon sisters, mental health, novels, reading, sisters, suicide, the virgin suicides, young adult, young adult fiction
I’d wanted to read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides for a long time. Ever since I saw the cover, the word ‘suicide’ above a young girl lying on a patch of bright green grass, brown shoes, white tights and a pink dress conveying her youth and innocence, I was intrigued.
I’d heard it was really good, great, amazing and had seen book posters proclaiming it “bewitching” (Vogue) and even “one of the finest novels in many years – a Catcher in the Rye for our time” (Observer). And so it came to pass that instead of picking up a copy and turning to the blurb or searching for the synopsis on Wikipedia, I imagined what I thought the novel was about.
I imagined it centred on a mass suicide pact led by a charismatic cult messiah bent on ordering an exodus of his many followers. For maximum impact this would happen at the stroke of midnight, preferably on the night of an ancient bloody ritual. (It probably didn’t help that I’d recently read Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk or that we were discussing cults in my A-Level R.S. and Philosophy lessons.)
But the novel wasn’t about this.
I imagined it was about the evils of manipulation and men that use it to mislead and mould others into believing crazy, ridiculous, terrifying things in order to assert their control over them.
But the novel wasn’t about this either.
I imagined it would explore and explain the reasons behind suicide; that big WHY? that hangs heavy over a person that has willingly chosen to end their own life. That it would dig deep and deeper into the conscious and subconscious of its characters, probing and probing until it discovered something startling and profound.
But the novel definitely wasn’t about this.
In fact, the novel is actually about the Lisbon sisters: Cecilia, Mary, Therese, Lux and Bonnie who all commit suicide over the space of a year. First it is Cecilia’s turn and then, later, the others follow. Eugenides gives no real reason for their suicides, instead offering theories through his first-person plural narrator that range from the girls’ stifling home life to suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to being a product of a declining, capitalist world.
It is this never knowing that is at the heart of the novel and it is this that keeps the novel’s narrator(s) obsessed with the girls long after their deaths.
I was about ten pages into The Virgin Suicides when I realised the effect all those imaginings of what the novel could be (and wasn’t) about had had on me. Although I loved much of Eugenides’ prose (undoubtedly the best thing about the novel) I began to grow bored with the distant characters, the slow plot and all the talk of fish flies.
Where was the psychopathic cult leader? Where was the probing examination of the suicidal mind? Where was the expose of the evils of religious cults and the psychological harm they inflict on their followers?
They weren’t there.
But then, I told myself, of course they weren’t there.
They had never been there. They never would be there. I had taken a book’s title and built my own idealistic world all around it that had nothing to do with the book itself. I had created a completely different story in my mind, slapped Eugendies’ title on it and had then grown annoyed when the novel didn’t fit my expectations.
I had committed novel fraud.
But even with this realisation burning in my brain, I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t stop myself from being disappointed that The Virgin Suicides wasn’t how I had imagined it to be, that it didn’t follow my dreamily imagined plot and didn’t deal with my dreamily imagined Important Topics That It Should Cover.
The novel is about two hundred and fifty pages long. I only resigned myself to truly accepting the novel for what it actually was about fifty pages before its end. I wasted two hundred whole pages wishing it was something else. Two hundred whole pages of narrative and (some) plot and observations and intrigue and mystique and (mostly) gorgeous prose. Two hundred whole pages that I can never again read for the first time, ruined.
And that’s why when I finished the novel I didn’t have that I-Just-Read-A-Great-Book glow. I didn’t even have that What-The-Hell-Was-That-Meant-To-Be?! indignation.
I felt nothing.
I just knew the damning thought that I’d just cheated myself out of what could have been a great (or at least interesting) novel, if only I’d let it be.
Have you ever let your imaginings of what a book could be about take over from the reality?