Despite its title, The Virgin Suicides is anything but depressing. Yes, the charismatic Lisbon sisters (''short, round- buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks that recalled that same dorsal softness'') do, in our startled presence, kill themselves (by hanging, overdosing, gas-stove asphyxiation, carbon monoxide poisoning, and impalement on a spiky metal fence), but there's not a trace of tabloid sleaze anywhere. Adopting a tone simultaneously elegiac and loony, The Virgin Suicides takes the dark stuff of Greek tragedy and reworks it into an eccentric, mesmerizing, frequently hilarious American fantasy about the tyranny of unrequited love, and the unknowable heart of every family on earth but especially the family next door.
A group of high school boys-become- middle-aged men sort through a museum of evidence they have been collecting for 20-odd years (diaries, snapshots, dried-out cosmetics, a soap dish, a pair of sneakers, a brassiere), searching for ''some Rosetta stone'' to explain the lost girls they loved in the early 1970s and love still. They interview former neighbors, friends, teachers, psychiatrists, even track down the girls' still-dazed parents, now divorced and living far away; but nothing is revealed. Through the distorting filter of time, they recall a homecoming dance, a basement party, a few casual gestures. In retrospect, everything seems meaningful and means nothing. ''They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn't help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us.'' But then again... Throughout, Eugenides shows his literary influences a little too baldly. His collective narrator sounds remarkably like the storytelling ''we'' in Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, his tilts into magic realism often feel like swipes from Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and his mythic-cum-farcical evocation of childhood owes a whopping debt to Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse. But there's much here that's marvelously original, and like Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus or Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, this is one of those debuts that tell you you are present at the beginning of a major career and make you glad you own a first edition. B+