I’m not quite sure why I picked this book up recently. There was no particular reason other than the fact that it’s been on my to-be-read list for quite awhile, and stories concerning suicides interest me. Morbid, I know, but there’s something about the mysterious, enigmatic element of suicide that’s always been a pulling factor for me.
Obviously suicides can be devastating and heart-breaking, especially for those left behind, but the reason for the suicides is the most intriguing. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but there’s always a huge question mark over the actual reason behind the suicides – no one is ever able to fully discern why it was that this person made that particular choice. And I suppose it is the speculation that makes it so intriguing – it’s the speculation that continues to hold up that wall of enigma, making sure that you are never able to get to the complete and unadorned truth.
This book recounts the lives and suicides of five sisters. Five sisters who are never allowed to experience life to the fullest due to overbearing parents who shut them away from the rest of the world. The story itself is narrated in first person plural – namely the boys who worship the sisters with a reverence that’s at times repulsive, bewildering, and endearing – and often at the same time. My favorite part about this book was the prose. I could easily drown myself in Eugenides’ writing – but it’s a slow-motion drowning, where you’re submerged in degrees, and you’re very aware of it but allow yourself to be pulled in anyway.
“At the window the world’s light seemed dimmed. They rubbed their eyes to no avail. They felt heavy, slow-witted. Household objects lost meaning. A bedside clock became a hunk of molded plastic, telling something called time, in a world marking its passage for some reason. When we thought of the girls along these lines, it was as feverish creatures, exhaling soupy breath, succumbing day by day in their isolated ward. We went outside with our hair wet in the hopes of catching flu ourselves so that we might share their delirium.”
It’s a bit of an understatement to be saying that there’s a tragedy underlying this whole novel, but I’m saying it, anyway. The grief that the boys feel is never directly and blatantly explored. It’s far more subtle than that; it’s palpable in the way the boys try desperately to solve the mystery that is the girls, but never seem to quite get there. In their awe and worship of the sisters, they end up placing them on a pedestal, creating an even larger gap between the girls and the world that they are never privy to. I think, though it’s never stated, the boys fail them in this way. They want to touch, but are too afraid that they might break something. But it’s the not touching, the lack of living, that breaks the girls in the end. That’s the grief that you can smell in this book, and it clings to you after you’ve read the last page, just as it clings to the boys, never letting them go even as they grow into middle-aged men.
“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical sins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all.”
The grief is created through the boys’ inability to rescue the sisters’, their inability to understand them, and inversely, through the sisters’ inability to make themselves understood. Except, of course, through suicide. There’s a scene which describes the cutting down of the neighborhood trees due to some kind of poisoning; this banal detail is heart-breaking when you consider the similarities between the helpless trees and the girls who are equally helpless and misunderstood.
“After denuding the trunk, the men left to denude others, and for a time the tree stood blighted, trying to raise its stunted arms, a creature clubbed mute, only its sudden voicelessness making us realize it had been speaking all along.”
As I said, the grief is palpable. There are no tears or sobbing, but instead, there’s a feeling of hollowness. And it’s intensely acute. After reading the last page, I wanted to immediately turn back and read the whole thing again, thinking that maybe the second time around, I’d be able to pick up clues, some detail that I’d missed. But then I realized that was what the boys had been doing. Telling us this story, recounting this tale of their adolescence, in the hopes that the recounting would be able to help them pinpoint that particular moment or word that could have held all the significance – but by the end, after all these years – they are still at a loss. And so was I.