Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel remains one of the most astute and sensitive portrayals of teen 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 modern classic, follows the five Lisbon sisters living in a leafy Michigan suburb during the 1970s. As the title suggests, the girls 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, decades on, and fruitlessly attempt to figure out what compelled them to end their lives.
Six years after its publication, it was made into an ethereal film, famously directed by Sofia Coppola (her debut, in fact), 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 would encourage ‘copycat’ teen suicides, before going on to achieve slightly more success after a wider release in May. Today, both the film and the book are regarded as classics, with Coppola having pulled off the near-impossible feat of making a good page-to-screen adaptation.
Three decades 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 can’t tag a video as #thevirginsuicides due to TikTok’s censorship rules – trying to search it will bring up a Samaritans number), and the book’s influence is also plain in various TikTok subcultures such as the ‘coquettes’. Most notably, according to The Bookseller, Eugenides titles sold for £345,000 in 2022 – with The Virgin Suicides accounting for 90 per cent of these sales – after the novel gained traction on BookTok. By 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 few 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 in 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 how 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 of the book’s most famous quotes, where a dismissive doctor tells Cecilia she’s not “old enough” to have serious mental issues, prompting her to say: “Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl.” Rachael, who was 13 when she was first admitted to hospital while suffering from anorexia and depression, recalls how the quote deeply resonated with her. “I ordered a copy of the book from eBay the same day,” she says.
Reading the book, Rachael says, made her feel “seen” as a teenage girl whose mental health problems were not taken very seriously. “As a tween, even though my parents themselves were really great and understanding, most people were quite unsympathetic to my mental health,” she says. “They brushed it off as a phase, or assumed I was merely ‘looking for attention’.” Habi, 22, had a similar experience, and also discovered the book through Tumblr after seeing the same Cecilia quote. “I don’t think girlhood is ever treated as a serious topic which is worth exploring – everything teenage girls like is usually made fun of, or there to be ridiculed,” she says. “And then here you had this story.”
“Here was a novel that acknowledged how complex, dark, and sorrowful a young woman’s inner mental life could 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 at the University of Leicester, and she suggests that Gen Z’s obsession with 90s and 00s culture might have sparked a Virgin Suicides revival – but also notes that the story is, in many ways, timeless. “The book and its film adaptation have a sense of timelessness through their own use of nostalgia: it’s a 1970s story created in the 1990s,” she explains. “As such The Virgin Suicides is able to speak to the anxieties, fascination, and glamorisation of girlhood which take on a seemingly enduring quality relevant to any period, and this has allowed the text to take on the status as a classic.”
This tracks with Ruby, Rachael, and Habi, who all stress that a large part of the book’s appeal is in its piercing portrayal of both the beauty and the ugliness of teen 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 speak to young women and girls in a language they understand without shying away from the horror of suicide, in a similar vein to The Bell Jar.
For Rachael, the novel captures the “mundanities of depression”, which makes it all the more powerful. “Eugenides certainly isn’t romanticising mental illness as this mystical, sexy thing, nor are the sisters. The only ones that can be accused as guilty of that are 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 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 work that gets its depiction of teen suicide ‘right’, it’s also possible the novel and film are both having a revival given that sadness and mental health issues among 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 have seriously considered dying by suicide, a 60 per cent rise since 2013. In the UK, reports show that self-harm admissions to hospital among teenage girls more than tripled between 2010 and 2020. There are myriad reasons for this uptick – such as social media’s influence and the COVID-19 pandemic – factors that wouldn’t have impacted teenage girls in the 90s, when the book was first released.
Dr Kennedy stresses that while these factors are likely a reason for the book’s endurance, it’s also important to acknowledge that the underlying, deeper issues aren’t necessarily new. “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 1990s 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 take on: to be ‘good’, innocent daughters and friends, but sexually knowing and sexually desirable to boys and young men – all at the same time,” Dr Kennedy continues. “This is a set of contradictions that has surrounded girlhood for decades now – though they perhaps have become intensified more recently with the hypervisibility expected of girls now on social media platforms like TikTok.”
Evidently, while girlhood has changed in myriad significant ways since 1993, it’s clear the story speaks to the ineffable, immutable quality of teenage pain and the anxieties we have almost always projected onto young girls. “I can’t speak to the experiences of boys or non-binary teens, but that period between 13 and 16 can be really painful for young girls,” Rachael says. “I think that’s why the book and film remain really popular, because those suffering can see themselves and aspects of their experiences in one or each of the sisters in the book.”
Only time will tell if the story will cement itself in the western canon and remain popular with future audiences. But it’s cheering to think that it still strikes a chord among young women and girls even now, 30 years on from its release. Even more so considering Paramount’s attempts to smother the film for its sensitive – but worthy – subject matter. “I’m happy that it has had a second life, and it makes me glad that girls of other generations connect to 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 at the time it came out.”