It’s always a dicey prospect whenever a film studio options the rights to adapt a book into film. Very few works of literature survive first contact with Hollywood. There are those adaptations that excel with help from the author, like Cider House Rules and there are those where the author refuses to have anything to do with the bastardization of their work, which I like to refer to as the Alan Moore approach. There are those films whose adaptations, arguably, best their source material, as in the case of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and then there are those who makes the pages of their books curl up in shame, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Love in the Time of Cholera being two of the most egregious examples. Considering how often readers are faced with this last example, I’ve taken to refusing to read books whose adaptations I’ve seen until long after I’ve forgotten the film so that I can better view each as a stand-alone work.
Seeing as how it’s been nearly a decade since Sofia Coppola was lauded and fêted within an inch of her life upon release of her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ first book, The Virgin Suicides, and seeing as how my goldfish-like memory often leaves me unable to remember what I watched last week, let alone ten years ago, I figured that now, fresh on the heels of finishing Eugenide’s Pulitzer-winning Middlesex, was the perfect time to read this bittersweet tale of first love.
Recounting the last year of the lives of the five Lisbon sisters, ruled over by an imperious and hyper-protective mother who ends up as the de facto warden of the girls in her attempts to protect her from the slings and arrows that life will throw at them. Attempts that will, ultimately, lead to the girls taking their lives. That's not a spoiler. The book admits it in the title and the first few pages. To recount this tale of adolescent despair ("Obviously, doctor, you have never been a 13 year old girl," says the youngest Lisbon sister, soon before taking her life) Eugenides employs an unnamed narrator who could be any one of, or all of, a group of neighborhood boys whose first stirrings of love are directed toward the enigmatic blonde girls who live down the lane.
By scavenging through the girl's garbage and the anecdotes of various schoolmates these boys construct an idea of the girls and the loneliness that surrounds them. Through this collection of found history the boys formulate a constantly changing portrait of the girls and what their various hopes and dreams may be. The way in which Eugenides fleshes out these histories could easily be called precious, if not for the impending doom that the reader knows is always coming. It is this underlying atmosphere of dread that kept the story moving for me, the knowledge of how the girls' deaths would impact the boys and forever alter their relations with the fairer sex, and when the penultimate moment finally arrives nothing of the impact is robbed by knowing that it is coming.
More than anything, though, I think that it is Eugenides' ability to connect with that sense of childhood mystery and endless possibility that makes this book such a resounding success. The way in which each high school boy had a different perception of each of the girls based on their various ideas of what love struck home to me and how I once concocted stories for each of the houses on my paper route and populated them with romantic and headstrong characters.
Ultimately, I ended up loving the Lisbon girls as much as their youthful stalkers. Throughout the entirety, I kept hoping that the boys' dreams would come true and that they'd be able to whisk the Lisbon girls away from their pain and despair, driving into the sunset in Trip Fontaine's GTO, worlds away from the reactionary behavior of their parents. But the title can not lie and this tale was doomed to tragedy from the start. Regardless, though, the ride along the way is what makes this story one of the absolute best that I've read this year.