Paperback, 250 pages
Published: 2002 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (1st published 1993)
Setting: Michigan (1970)
The five Lisbon sisters — Mary, Therese, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecelia — were a subject of endless fascination for the neighborhood boys. Carefully guarded by their stern, religious mother, they rarely left the house except to attend school. To the boys, they were beautiful and enigmatic, and their home — full of brassieres, tampons, and girls’ clothes — was a treasure trove of feminine mysteries. During what came to be known known as The Year of the Suicides, the boys — who fantasized about the girls and hoped to save them — bore witness to the disintegration of the Lisbon family and the sisters’ tragic deaths.
This is an unusual novel. It’s told in third person plural, in the voice of the boys, who are now middle-aged men still trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to the Lisbon girls. It is essentially a book without a protagonist. The men who serve as narrators are on the fringes of the story. And the girls — upon whom they focus their attention — never come into clear focus. They’re are often seen as an amorphous group, some people had difficulty remembering which sister was which. And the Lisbon girls were only glimpsed in school hallways, through windows, and on their rare appearances in public.
We never hear dialogue or see the girls’ thoughts. We view them from a distance; they’re shadowy, mysterious characters. Somewhere between them and the dimly glimpsed boys who watch them with such fascination — in a middle class, 1970s neighborhood populated with dying elm trees — is the story: filmy reminiscences on collective childhood memories.
It is not really a story in the conventional sense. It is not strongly plot-driven, and the characters are only dimly glimpsed. It is a work of gorgeous lyrical prose, with rich, vivid descriptive detail, almost more a poem than a novel. The vibrant, almost dream-like imagery reminds me a bit of Alice Hoffman’s novels. And through this lyrical prose and vivid imagery, Eugenides does an exceptional job of capturing the essence of the story. We get a sense of what the Lisbon household was like. The domineering mother and quiet, scholarly father. The girls, squeezed together in their confined life. Glimpses of their interests, passions, and suppressed longing.
For me, this is a difficult book to review. At times I found myself mesmerized by the gorgeous prose, and at other times I found it difficult to get through. I wanted the story to move forward or dig deeper. I hoped the camera would zoom in more tightly on the characters so we could truly see them.
But in fairness, the novel’s style fits the material. In a sense, it’s a story about how little we know about the people with whom we grow up and who absorb our attention. It’s about how life leaves us with more questions than answers.
It’s also a story that’s told retrospectively, after twenty years have passed. While novels often feature detailed, linear flashbacks, does memory really work this way? When I look back, I don’t see my life, or the lives of people I’ve known, as well-ordered timelines. I recall a cluster of jumbled memories, images, and emotions, and the people I’ve known are not always fully drawn in my memory. I certainly don’t recall detailed dialogue.
For me, that’s what works best about this novel. It portrays memory, more or less, as it really is. It also does a beautiful job of capturing the passion, confusion, and longing of adolescence. This, along with the gorgeous lyrical writing, makes this a unique and memorable novel.