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A Lisbon Sister Landscape

by Emma Reidy 11 months ago in literature

As The Virgin Suicides recently turned 20, it seems more resonant than ever before.

Going through my old highschool book collection since I’m home, I’ve been rereading some of my favorite texts for the first time in six years. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (1993) has become a cult classic, but it seems especially fitting for this time. Quoting Dazed editor Claire Marie Healy, as many find themselves confined to their bedrooms reminiscent of highschool nights, this pandemic has made us “teenagers again. Waiting for our lives to begin.” The film by Sofia Coppola turned twenty during quarantine, setting the bedroom-bound Lisbon sisters in our crystallised collective consciousness for the foreseeable future and perhaps resonating with us more than ever in the midst of a pandemic.

Rereading The Virgin Suicides this past week, I picked up on a lot more nuances than I did when I was 15. Set in the shadow of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movements, and other catalysing events of the American 60s, the town in which the story is set seems bloated with all these unspoken but present contestations. These political overtones which seem national but effect the local are still very present in the US today, demonstrated by the tragic killing of George Floyd this past week and the war-jargon often used by the Trump administration in relation to the pandemic. Quoting ecofeminist scholar Claire Colebrook, “the personal is political.” The overarching moods of the nation impact the colloquial, even though it’s hard at times to see the connection between Trump’s tweets and the life immediately outside my window. This subtle absorption of the political is encapsulated by the narrators of The Virgin Suicides, who don’t explicitly state the growing pains of the America they live in, but notice how it affects the trees and graveyards in their town through disease and union strikes. This point of view that the novel is written in - from the perspective of a group of boys who live on the same street as the Lisbon sisters - came to the foreground this time when I read it.

The Lisbon sisters in their bedroom

Picking up the novel in the sale section of an Urban Outfitters while I was on a family vacation made it feel even more like a secret departure from my own life than it already was. When I was 15 I swallowed the narrators’ words, becoming a spectator of the scintillating sisters myself and disregarding the retrospective narrators’ presence almost entirely. Being a newly christened teenager and wanting to access some other life I knew was out there, across the boundary of highschool years, I allowed myself to become saturated with the Lisbon sisters as well. Life elsewhere is even symbolised in their name, shared with Lisbon, Portugal, which associates them with somewhere far and distant. However this time around I was able to better recognise the textures in the boys’ voices throughout the novel. As I’m currently home in my suburban American childhood bedroom, I can’t help but become embedded in their viewpoint this time while reading, as I gaze and analyse and collect views from my bedroom window now too.

After listening to a podcast interview with the author of How to Do Nothing (2019), artist Jenny Odell, speaking of her love of birdwatching, I took up her recommendations and began keeping a journal of bird sightings myself. Instead of diaries of a distant inaccessible love interest, like the boys with Cecelia Lisbon’s journal, I have been keeping a journal of these birds and their daily patterns alongside the edges of my own. A new family of robins has made their home in a pointy evergreen near my bedroom window, chirping every morning over a constant hum of bees and lawnmowers. When writing on my deck last week, I noticed a Canadian goose standing so still that I thought it was a statue my mom had purchased for her flower beds, only to realise the poofy, downy heads of babies and a mother goose behind it; the father standing guard. As I take the same walk which loops by the cordoned off beach once a week, among the beige reeds of the marshes and charcoal-colored gravel on the sides of the road are broken baby blue robin eggs, signalling new life has just hatched as my own seems perpetually wading in place for the foreseeable future.

Cover of The Virgin Suicides novel by Jeffrey Eugenides

Although I don’t live across the street from the Lisbon sisters, any person or animal that enters the frame of my window has become more notable and more synchronised with the tones of my day. I notice snakes, frogs, and rabbits that hop and slither across my front lawn each morning in a way that I hadn’t before. Most likely because I was living in a city before returning home, but since lockdown I’ve felt more in touch with the ebbs and flows of nature within the confines of my yard. Frogs tickle my dog’s nose as he chases them along our garden. Chipmunks and squirrels rustle in the leaves in the woods as they forage for food. Pollen coats my laptop’s keyboard and screen (and my own eyes) as I type this. Although I do have hay fever, it’s worth it to be able to sit outside as the weather grows nicer. Everytime the wind blows the trees beside me sway a bit, creaking like well-used floorboards and signifying a presence other and larger than my own. Much like the narrators in The Virgin Suicides these other presences which surround me allow me to meditate on lives that aren’t my own; to step outside my own cyclical headspace for even just a moment to focus on movement other than my own.

Quoting Claire Marie Healy once more, “In adolescence, your life doesn’t feel entirely your own yet, and the desire to escape your reality – to break out of your girlish shell – is more real than anything else. Right now, quarantine is starting to ache like the six-week holiday, like the view down the street from an open bedroom window. Because didn’t being a teenager always feel a bit like being dressed up with nowhere to go?” As the natural world continues to swirl and thrive around me, one could think it would make lockdown feel more confined and restricted, but instead - like the Lisbon sisters to the narrators - the ecosystem has become a source of infatuation for me during this time when I can’t leave. While the pandemic has reacquainted me with the material objects and the moods of my teenage self, now six years older I’ve also been able to appreciate details I hadn’t before. Though it can feel stifling to feel like you’re dressed up with nowhere to go for an opaque future, it has equally been a freeing feeling, having dipped my toes into adulthood and been able to return to the comfort of home once more.

As the town of the Lisbon sisters and unnamed narrators suffers from several natural disruptions over the year that the book takes place, I’ve witnessed the palpitating differences in my immediate ecosystem more readily as well. Since quarantine has evolved, the birds have become louder, my neighbor’s pet rooster crows at least every fifteen minutes (despite the trope that they only sound once a day at sunrise), the trees have become fuller and homes to smaller beings around me. I’m grateful and lucky to be spending quarantine in an idyllic space like this, that seems more aligned to Bambi’s harmonious forest than a worldwide pandemic. Similar to the narrators of The Virgin Suicides I’ve become more attuned to the subtle changes of the air in my neighborhood and hope to continue to be more conscious of these nuances even as quarantine gradually fades away.

Cecelia Lisbon in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides Film

Emma Reidy
Emma Reidy
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Emma Reidy

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