I read The Virgin Suicides when it first came out in 1993 and it immediately became one of my favourite books. I must have read it at least fifteen times at this stage and my copy is in tatters. The book is about the Lisbon sisters, Cecelia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese, a family of five girls growing up in suburban Michigan in the 70s.
It opens with the youngest sister Cecelia’s suicide attempt suicide aged thirteen and the family’s reaction to it. Their mother is a devoutly religious woman who thinks she is protecting the girls by isolating them from the world. Their father is an ineffectual man, unable to stand up to his wife or connect with his daughters. Alone and desperate, the remaining sisters decide to follow Cecelia and commit suicide themselves.
It sounds utterly miserable but in fact it’s a romantic, poignant and magical book, even funny at times. Despite the fact that it was written by a man, it conveys exactly what it is to be a teenage girl: the extreme emotions, the dreaminess, the obsessions and passions. When I first read The Virgin Suicides aged sixteen I wanted to be Lux Lisbon – I wanted her confidence and her mystery. Even now, many years later, I think she is one of the most beguiling teenage girls in fiction.
I received an HMV token for Christmas and one of the movies I was bought was Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides starring Kirsten Dunst. I had seen the movie when it came out and it’s one of the few film adaptations of books that I have enjoyed. Coppola was obviously an enormous fan of Eugenides’ work as she has taken dialogue verbatim from the book and has handled the source material with great care. Every detail of the Lisbon’s house is accurately realised from the crucifix in Cecelia’s bedroom to the bronzed baby shoes in the hallway. The enthralling feminine atmosphere comes across like a heady perfume, at first intoxicating and then gradually suffocating.
In addition to Dunst the movie stars James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the girls’ parents, Josh Hartnett as the school heartthrob, Danny DeVito as Cecelia’s psychiatrist and A.J. Cook as Mary (who will be known to fans of Criminal Minds as JJ). The score is by Air and is one of the few movie scores I have bothered to buy as it stands alone as a beautiful album.
If you haven’t read the book, do so immediately! I cannot recommend it enough. But make sure you read the book before you see the movie as you will appreciate Coppola’s film even more.