My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The book is told from the perspective of a young boy (and his friends) in suburban Detroit whose lives are basically put on hold as they are captivated by a mystery of 5 girls in adolescence. They watch the girls from behind trees and fences and blinds and a treehouse where they have – over time – collected minutia (photos, hairbrushes, shoes, etc) related to the girls whom they almost publicly obsess over. Suicide is obviously (from the first page) a topic of great concern.
Eugenides writing style is accessible and engaging throughout. He finds delicious language to describe the most common (and boring) affairs of suburban white America in the 70s, irony, like the city’s aspirations to save the Elm trees by removing them one at a time until they are all gone. Their is an underlying sadness in the story, related to us through various characters from the OCD mom to the alcoholic neighbor to the unemployed teacher; an impotence against the fate not only of these young beauties but also of the home, the street, the neighborhood, the culture itself. You wonder if anything is sacred anymore.
I had a lot of fun reading about these boys and there efforts to establish contact if not connection with the girls, how they go about it. They report back on their mischief and it’s all very entertaining. There’s a desperation which drives the narrative of the spies. How can they get around the carefully constructed bubble the parents (and the culture) have created, to touch the objects of their adoration?
Something strange happens. Eugenides power of characterization could have really brought the girls to life (and I did begin to have feelings and bias towards each and every one of them), however the premise and setup prevent us (like the boys) from getting to know these ‘virgin suicides’. I found myself thirsting at times for more direct quotes and closer proximity to Lux and her sisters. So the established POV is very powerful this way. I’m not sure I liked this aspect of the book. I mean, I think I wanted to get a more intimate view of everything. It’s not always fun to be made into a voyeur by the author. But it’s his book! And so the mysteries are not always gonna unravel.
In the end you are left to make your own judgments about everything. The narrator has his opinion and gives it to us, but not in a preachy way. Mostly we are given an intimate window to a place (post white flight suburbs of Detroit, the automotive center of the universe) and time (1970s) which will never exist again. Which makes me happy, because Eugenides kinda immortalizes it all in this book, so maybe something is sacred, after all.