07.22.09 6:32 AM ET
The Virgin Suicides' Sweet 16
Impossible as it may be to believe, Jeffrey Eugenides had so little faith in his ability to get The Virgin Suicides published that he filled it with the names of people he knew. “I was a virtually unpublished writer just playing around,” he says on the phone from Berlin, where he is spending the summer with his wife, the photographer and sculptor Karen Yamauchi and their 10-year-old daughter. “I had no ostensible hopes for it. My writing was a private exercise to please myself.”
Sofia Coppola was so taken with the story of the five “glittering” sisters in their homemade dresses that she wrote the screenplay despite not actually owning the rights to the book.
Still, he had studied with the likes of Rick Moody, who was beginning to get published, and while Eugenides maintained himself by working as an executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets in New York, he wrote for two hours a night, four hours on the weekend and at every chance he could get during the workday. He was eventually fired for writing on the job, so he submitted the first chapter of his “private exercise” to The Paris Review as a short story. That was almost two decades ago. Today, the novel that resulted from that short story has been republished in paperback and holds its place as a modern American classic.
Former Paris Review editor James Scott Linville remembers receiving chapter one of what would become The Virgin Suicides. He had seen Eugenides’ writing before. About six years earlier, Eugenides had sent in a short story called "Capricious Gardens." An intern had fished it out of the slush pile and handed it to Linville. “It was terrific, but it wasn’t right for us,” remembers Linville. “So I wrote Jeff a letter and told him to send it to the Gettysburg Review.” In the succeeding years, Eugenides sent Linville “about a dozen stories,” but none were published. But this new story was completely different from anything he’d written before. “It had this very unusual choral voice and was quietly insinuating,” recalls Linville. “It was a story about how men can feel left out of women’s lives in some ways, that there is something unknowable about women, something men first notice as teenagers.” Linville took the story to his then-editor-in-chief, the late George Plimpton and, as if a magic wand had been waved, Eugenides was published in The Paris Review and introduced to Lynn Nesbit, one of New York’s most powerful literary agents. Soon after, he signed his first book deal.
In 1993, the same year that Eugenides turned 33, The Virgin Suicides was published in its entirety as a 249-page novel about five suicidal sisters and the boys who never get over their deaths. Michiko Kakutani called it a “piercing first novel,” and described it in her review in The New York Times as “by turns lyrical and portentous, ferocious and elegiacal…a small but powerful opera in the unexpected form of a novel.”
The music of that opera has never stopped playing. The Virgin Suicides has been translated into more than 15 languages, and for the past 16 years its tune has beckoned high-school and college-age readers, Pied Piper-style, to continue to pick it up. The novel now appears on English literature curricula at high schools and colleges around the country.
Sofia Coppola heard the novel’s golden-voiced call, too. She was so taken with the story of the five “glittering” Lisbon sisters in their homemade dresses that she wrote the screenplay for the film despite not actually owning the film rights to the book. (Her father warned her not to waste her time.) But with the same enthusiasm that Eugenides had received from Linville and Plimpton at The Paris Review, she secured the rights from their original owner and completed her dreamy Virgin Suicides film in 2000. Yet while the film—which has the look and feel of a looped MTV music video and has since inspired countless fashion editorials—added a glamorous edginess to the book, it didn’t replace it. Instead, there is a continuous call and response between the two.
Eugenides says he believes his first novel has remained timeless because it literally is so. “As a first-time novelist I was not adept at chronicling time so it doesn’t fasten onto the events of 1973 too closely,” he says. “The story is already a memory. It’s 20 years before the boys get around to writing it. That dreaminess helps the book to not date too quickly.” Later, he concedes that its focus on adolescence is equally compelling. “It’s a dramatic time of life. Everything is being experienced for the first time and at a higher intensity. It is the opposite of dull. That’s why people are attracted to reading books like Catcher in the Rye. It brings back memories of adolescence.”
Some academics see the themes in the book as the hooks. In her 2007 paper “Interrogating Suburbia in The Virgin Suicides,” Lisa A. Kirby, an assistant professor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College who included the book in her sophomore-level course Studies in Genre, wrote: “Its critique of American culture intrigued my students. In class discussions we repeatedly came back to the reality of the American Dream and whether it truly exists. Many students used real-life historical examples, such as Sam Walton and Bill Clinton, to support their position that the American Dream does exist… It is clear that Eugenides’ 1970s-era suburbia still shares a great many similarities with my students’ post-millennial communities.” Eugenides says that, in hindsight, he realizes that “the suicides were emblematic of growing up in Detroit, a city in perpetual crisis with a deteriorating automobile industry. There was an elegiac atmosphere when I was there as a child.”
Linville, now a screenwriter and journalist based in London, says he believes that the work has endured simply because it is one of a kind: “It’s not that it’s a complex book, but it’s a singular and original vision,” he says. “It is sad and funny at the same time, a domestic story with fantastical edges and absurdist, poignant notes. These oxymoronic combinations keep it very fresh.”
But perhaps the most compelling reason for readers to seek out The Virgin Suicides so long after its original publication date is because of Eugenides’ remarkable subsequent success. In 2003, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, Middlesex, a book that has sold 2.3 million copies in paperback and remains one of the bestselling of all American contemporary novels. “It may well be that the phenomenal success of Middlesex introduced Jeff to a lot of readers who are only now discovering his first novel,” says Frances Coady, vice president and publisher of Picador. Coady recently republished The Virgin Suicides in paperback after waiting nine years for the paperback rights originally held by Little, Brown to expire. “We have 30,000 copies in print within the first four weeks,” she says. “Alongside Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, it is one of our top selling reissues.”
Eugenides is, of course, very fond of his first novel, but other than the passages he has read publicly to market the new paperback with its cool cover photograph by the fine-art photographer Justine Kurland (she says it was the book that inspired her to shoot the series that the photograph is from in the first place), he has no plans to revisit the text. “It’s perilous to go back and read your old work,” says the author, who is working on a third novel which he says he hopes to finish in the next two or three years. “This one’s about college-age people. I’ve written about 150 pages of it, but it’s longer than that.”
Nadine Rubin is the former editor in chief of Elle South Africa. She moved to New York five years ago and has written for Harper's Bazaar and the New York Times.