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29 Mar

The Virgin Suicides at 30: why the novel resonates

Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel stays probably the most astute and sensitive portrayals of sweet sixteen suicide ever written – how did he get it so right?

Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published 30 years ago this week, on 1 April 1993. The story, now revered as a contemporary classic, follows the five Lisbon sisters living in a leafy Michigan suburb in the course of the Nineteen Seventies. Because the title suggests, the ladies grow increasingly isolated by the actions of their draconian mother, and eventually all commit suicide. It’s narrated by a chorus of the neighbourhood’s boys – now men – who remain fascinated by the tragedy, a long time on, and fruitlessly try and work out what compelled them to finish their lives.

Six years after its publication, it was made into an ethereal film, famously directed by Sofia Coppola (her debut, actually), starring Kirsten Dunst as Lux, the 14-year-old Lisbon sister, and soundtracked by Air. It received a limited release in April 2000 as Paramount Classics was afraid it could encourage ‘copycat’ teen suicides, before happening to attain barely more success after a wider release in May. Today, each the film and the book are considered classics, with Coppola having pulled off the near-impossible feat of constructing a great page-to-screen adaptation.

Three a long time later, the story’s popularity is showing no signs of waning – if anything, it’s on the up. In 2021, Heaven by Marc Jacobs released a wildly popular collection dedicated to the Virgin Suicides, including a mesh top emblazoned with Dunst as Lux sullenly picking at a toffee apple. On TikTok, videos about Lux Lisbon have amassed over 800 million views (you may’t tag a video as #thevirginsuicides attributable to TikTok’s censorship rules – trying to go looking it’ll bring up a Samaritans number), and the book’s influence can also be plain in various TikTok subcultures akin to the ‘coquettes’. Most notably, in accordance with The Bookseller, Eugenides titles sold for £345,000 in 2022 – with The Virgin Suicides accounting for 90 per cent of those sales – after the novel gained traction on BookTok. In contrast, in 2019, pre-BookTok, Eugenides titles shifted £32,000.

TikTok is where 17-year-old Ruby first encountered the story, after stumbling across fan edits of Coppola’s film. She’s since made a number of viral Virgin Suicides fancam edits of her own: one video, with over 800,000 views, features sepia-toned clips of the film spliced together while ‘Silver Soul’ by Beach House softly plays within the background. “It’s now my all-time favourite film,” Ruby says. “It made me feel so seen and illustrated the pain of girlhood so well – and the way boys really can’t understand girls.”

While Ruby discovered the book through TikTok, Rachael, 23, found it on Tumblr like many other Zillennials. She was intrigued after stumbling across one in all the book’s most famous quotes, where a dismissive doctor tells Cecilia she’s not “sufficiently old” to have serious mental issues, prompting her to say: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve got never been a 13-year-old girl.” Rachael, who was 13 when she was first admitted to hospital while affected by anorexia and depression, recalls how the quote deeply resonated together with her. “I ordered a duplicate of the book from eBay the identical day,” she says.

Reading the book, Rachael says, made her feel “seen” as a teenage girl whose mental health problems weren’t taken very seriously. “As a tween, although my parents themselves were really great and understanding, most individuals were quite unsympathetic to my mental health,” she says. “They brushed it off as a phase, or assumed I used to be merely ‘on the lookout for attention’.” Habi, 22, had an identical experience, and in addition discovered the book through Tumblr after seeing the identical Cecilia quote. I don’t think girlhood is ever treated as a serious topic which is value exploring – the whole lot teenage girls like will likely be made fun of, or there to be ridiculed,” she says. “After which here you had this story.”

Here was a novel that acknowledged how complex, dark, and sorrowful a young woman’s inner mental life could possibly be. It didn’t glorify it, it didn’t brush it off — it just captured it, it respected it, and gave it the room to exist” — Rachael

Dr Melanie Kennedy is a media and communications lecturer specialising in femininity in popular culture on the University of Leicester, and she or he suggests that Gen Z’s obsession with 90s and 00s culture may need sparked a Virgin Suicides revival – but in addition notes that the story is, in some ways, timeless. “The book and its film adaptation have a way of timelessness through their very own use of nostalgia: it’s a Nineteen Seventies story created within the Nineteen Nineties,” she explains. “As such The Virgin Suicides is in a position to speak to the anxieties, fascination, and glamorisation of girlhood which tackle a seemingly enduring quality relevant to any period, and this has allowed the text to tackle the status as a classic.”

This tracks with Ruby, Rachael, and Habi, who all stress that a big a part of the book’s appeal is in its piercing portrayal of each the wonder and the ugliness of sweet sixteen girlhood. While other depictions of teenage sadness and suicide have often been branded as irresponsible and ‘romantic’ – a charge that has been levelled at Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which potentially caused a teen suicide spike following its release – the Virgin Suicides manages to talk to young women and girls in a language they understand without shying away from the horror of suicide, in an identical vein to The Bell Jar.

For Rachael, the novel captures the “mundanities of depression”, which makes it all of the more powerful. “Eugenides actually isn’t romanticising mental illness as this mystical, sexy thing, nor are the sisters. The one ones that might be accused as guilty of which might be the boys that narrate the novel, and long before the novel ends, Eugenides has already made their fallacy humiliatingly clear,” she says. Here was a novel that acknowledged how complex, dark, and sorrowful a young woman’s inner mental life could possibly be. It didn’t glorify it, it didn’t brush it off – it just captured it, it respected it, and gave it the room to exist.”

On top of its position as a rare piece of labor that gets its depiction of sweet sixteen suicide ‘right’, it’s also possible the novel and film are each having a revival on condition that sadness and mental health issues amongst teen girls are on the rise. A study published by the CDC in February reported record levels of sadness in teen girls, with 30 per cent saying they’ve seriously considered dying by suicide, a 60 per cent rise since 2013. Within the UK, reports show that self-harm admissions to hospital amongst teenage girls greater than tripled between 2010 and 2020. There are myriad reasons for this uptick – akin to social media’s influence and the COVID-19 pandemic – aspects that wouldn’t have impacted teenage girls within the 90s, when the book was first released.

Dr Kennedy stresses that while these aspects are likely a reason for the book’s endurance, it’s also essential to acknowledge that the underlying, deeper issues aren’t necessarily latest. “The continued popularity of The Virgin Suicides really speaks to social anxieties that circulated around girlhood, from concerns about girls and mental health, body image, bullying, sexualisation, or more broadly, fears about girls ‘growing up too soon’,” she says. “That was the context that surrounded the Nineteen Nineties release of The Virgin Suicides, and these are a set of debates and comments we still see today.”

“What The Virgin Suicides also speaks to is the very contradictory roles that girls in western culture are expected to tackle: to be ‘good’, innocent daughters and friends, but sexually knowing and sexually desirable to boys and young men – all at the identical time,” Dr Kennedy continues. “It is a set of contradictions that has surrounded girlhood for a long time now – though they perhaps have develop into intensified more recently with the hypervisibility expected of ladies now on social media platforms like TikTok.”

Evidently, while girlhood has modified in myriad significant ways since 1993, it’s clear the story speaks to the ineffable, immutable quality of teenage pain and the anxieties we’ve almost all the time projected onto young girls. “I can’t speak to the experiences of boys or non-binary teens, but that period between 13 and 16 might be really painful for young girls,” Rachael says. “I believe that’s why the book and film remain really popular, because those suffering can see themselves and elements of their experiences in a single or each of the sisters within the book.”

Only time will tell if the story will cement itself within the western canon and remain popular with future audiences. But it surely’s cheering to think that it still strikes a chord amongst young women and girls even now, 30 years on from its release. Much more so considering Paramount’s attempts to smother the film for its sensitive – but worthy – material. “I’m joyful that it has had a second life, and it makes me glad that girls of other generations connect with it and find something in it,” Coppola said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly back in 2018. “It didn’t have much of a life on the time it got here out.”

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