Jeffrey Eugenides evokes the emotions of youth with haunting sensitivity and dark humor and creates a coming-of-age story unlike any of our time.
Eugenides's tantalizing, macabre first novel begins with a suicide, the first of the five bizarre deaths of the teenage daughters in the Lisbon family; the rest of the work, set in the author's native Michigan in the early 1970s, is a backward-looking quest as the male narrator and his nosy, horny pals describe how they strove to understand the odd clan of this first chapter, which appeared in The Paris Review , where it won the 1991 Aga Khan Prize for fiction. The sensationalism of the subject matter (based loosely on a factual account) may be off-putting to some readers, but Eugenides's voice is so fresh and compelling, his powers of observation so startling and acute, that most will be mesmerized. The title derives from a song by the fictional rock band Cruel Crux, a favorite of the Lisbon daughter Lux -- who, unlike her sisters Therese, Mary, Bonnie and Cecilia, is anything but a virgin by the tale's end. Her mother forces Lux to burn the album along with others she considers dangerously provocative. Mr. Lisbon, a mild-mannered high school math teacher, is driven to resign by parents who believe his control of their children may be as deficient as his control of his own brood. Eugenides risks sounding sophomoric in his attempt to convey the immaturity of high-school boys; while initially somewhat discomfiting, the narrator's voice (representing the collective memories of the group) acquires the ring of authenticity. The author is equally convincing when he describes the older locals' reactions to the suicide attempts. Under the narrator's goofy, posturing banter are some hard truths: mortality is a fact of life; teenage girls are more attracted to brawn than to brains (contrary to the testimony of the narrator's male relatives). This is an auspicious debut from an imaginative and talented writer.