Sometimes we caught sight of tattered knee socks rounding a corner, or came upon them doubled over, shoving books into a cubbyhole, flicking the hair out of their eyes. But it was always the same: their white faces drifting in slow motion past us, while we pretended we hadn't been looking for them at all, that we didn't know they existed.
This quote, from the middle of Chapter Three, illustrates the boys' constant awareness of the Lisbon girls' presence at school, as the academic year begins and the community awkwardly comes to terms with Cecilia Lisbon's death. While local television shows feature sobbing teens regretting their own attempts at suicide, the Lisbon girls keep to themselves, allowing no one to fathom the depths of their suffering. In this passage, the girls appear as a procession of white faces, blonde hair, old clothes and dreams, reflecting the boys' continual struggle to piece together the girls' story. For just as the boys glimpse fragments of the girls' bodies in this quote, they can only glimpse fragments of the girls' motives and thoughts throughout the novel. The boys try, unsuccessfully, to assemble the pieces into an organic whole. But the boys' task is more complex than simply assembling evidence. Instead, they must fight the community's tendency to group the Lisbon girls as a single monolithic entity, and to understand the sisters as unique creatures. The difficulty of the boys' tasks is underscored by the passage's use of "they" to describe the girls and "we" to describe the boys, symbolizing one indistinct group trying to make sense of another.
Finally, the passage highlights the importance of sight and vision throughout the novel, as the girls are constantly the objects of the boys' gaze. The boys use the language of photography to describe the Lisbon sisters, implying that they are art objects to be looked at and cannot look back any more than a photograph can return a glance. Likewise, in the quote above, when the boys refuse to acknowledge that they have been looking at the girls, they implicitly refuse to acknowledge the girls as true human beings who are able to meet their gaze. By extension, the boys fail to enter directly into the girls' suffering, and they cannot accept the girls as tragic creatures for whose suicides they cannot be held responsible.
"Do we seem as crazy as everyone thinks?" "Who thinks that?" She didn't reply, only stuck her hand out the door to test for rain. "Cecilia was weird, but we're not." And then: "We just want to live. If anyone would let us."
This exchange takes place between Therese and Kevin Head at Homecoming, near the end of Chapter Three. Trip Fontaine has found three boys to take each of the three other Lisbon girls to Homecoming so that he will be allowed to go with Lux, a rare concession from strict Mrs. Lisbon. Though the girls attend the dance in shapeless homemade dresses, and their hair unnaturally coiffed, the boys find them radiant: healthy, normal, feminine, and very much alive. In the larger narrative, these brief hours of Homecoming echo Cecilia's ill-fated party and foreshadow the fateful night of June 15, the two other occasions on which the neighborhood boys interact directly with the Lisbon girls. Set against the tragedy of those two events, the girls' happiness at Homecoming is particularly poignant. Yet these glorious hours are also the only time the boys directly interact with the girls in an environment outside their house, suggesting that the girls' deadly tendencies are a matter of external pressure and not intrinsic tendency. Also significant is that for the duration of leaving home, the Lisbon girls seem to make a full recovery from their stifling environment.
Evidence for the power of environment is implicit in this passage. Here, Therese's words represent the only time that any of the sisters publicly discuss Cecilia's suicide. While neighborhood opinion will later hold that Cecilia's suicide was "infectious," spreading irrevocably to her sisters, this exchange indicates that the four older sisters' suicide was not always inevitable. Instead, the forces of fate, parents, and suburban opinion will gradually conspire to leave the girls with no other choice. Likewise, by using the generic worlds "everyone" and "anyone," Therese suggests that she and her sisters are being stereotyped by a nameless collective. The force of collective opinion has the power to restrict the girls' ability "to live," hinting that the sisters' eventual deaths are not simply individual acts of self-destruction, but also necessary fulfillments of the community's morbid expectations.
but none of these signs of malnourishment or illness or grief detracted from Lux's overwhelming impression of being a carnal angel. They spoke of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings, and of the slight blond fuzz above her upper lip that felt like plumage. Her eyes shone, burned, intent on her mission as only a creature with no doubts as to either Creation's glory or its meaninglessness could be. The words the boys used, their shifty eyebrows, fright, bafflement, made it clear they had served as only the most insignificant footholds in Lux's ascent, and, in the end, even though they had been carried to the peak, they couldn't tell us what lay beyond.
Immediately after Homecoming, at the beginning of Chapter Four, Mrs. Lisbon inexplicably withdraws the Lisbon sisters from school and confines them to the house. In the following months, Lux is seen having sex on the roof with a stream of anonymous men. The neighborhood boys, fascinated, watch her escapades with binoculars, piecing together what they see with firsthand testimony from some of her partners. As the winter progresses, Lux begins to physically deteriorate, but as the quote indicates, her performance and presence are no less magnificent. At Cecilia's ill-fated party, the boys had realized that Lux was the only Lisbon girl as beautiful as they had imagined. Here, she becomes symbolic not only of all that is desirable about the Lisbon sisters, but also of a greater feminine ideal. She is the creature of each narrator's fantasy, lying not only beyond his comprehension but also more tangibly just beyond his reach.
Lux's carnal knowledge implies a worldly wisdom well beyond her fourteen years, echoing her mysterious ability to summon partners without leaving the house. But here, and throughout the novel, her magic depends on her inaccessibility. The boys can see her, but they cannot touch, taste, smell, or hear her from their own rooftop. Indeed, the book's emphasis on sight and vision as primary senses continually underscores their distance as spectators. They imagine Lux to be an angel, an unreachable and barely human creature who has temporarily alighted on earth. Although they willingly participate, Lux's partners have little idea as to her actual motives for braving the roof, their lust, and the winter chill. At chapter's end, the boys will echo these questions as they wonder why Lux invited them to attend her sisters' suicide. The girls' surety, their resolve and their silence leave the boys wondering whether they have known the girls at all. They suspect that they have been simply accessories, allowed to witness but not to participate in the girls' higher plans.
After denuding the trunk, the men left to denude others, and for a time the tree stood blighted, trying to raise its stunted arms, a creature clubbed mute, only its sudden voicelessness making us realize it had been speaking all along.
This passage, from the middle of Chapter Four, describes the Parks Department's standard procedure for dealing with a tree that has caught Dutch Elm Disease. Throughout Chapter Four, the boys hear saws, as the officials mutilate infected trees in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. Only later will they return to uproot the stump. Nonetheless, by novel's end, the combined effects of beetles and saws will result in the loss of all the neighborhood's trees. This destruction of the suburb's physical environment mirrors its less tangible disintegration, which the boys feel began with the Lisbon deaths. Furthermore, the rapid spread of the elm epidemic echoes the neighborhood's fears about suicide, which thanks to Dr. Hornicker is popularly discussed in the language of infectious disease. The Parks Department's two-stage treatment—blighting followed by eventual uprooting—suggests the Lisbon sisters' two-stage death, strict confinement to the house followed nine months by suicide. Both the girls, and the trees, are taken for granted by the boys until they are suddenly removed by forces beyond the boys' control.
Thus, the boys' sorrow at the tree suddenly "clubbed mute" mirrors their greater despair at the Lisbon girls' untimely deaths. The novel continually dwells upon what is missing, lamenting unknown details, lost time, and the inaccessible girls. Indeed, the boys' larger project of piecing together the Lisbon girls' story is not portrayed as constructive, but rather as an attempt to patch up the gaping hole that has appeared in their lives. The novel begins against a background of absence, and continually plays upon the desire to fill in the pieces. Blind to the present as it happened, the boys must reconstruct their past by means of the unseen, the invisible, and the forgotten, signs which—like the tree's silence in this passage—serve to witness the immensity of what has been lost.
It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.
This quote, the book's last, represents the boys' final elegy for the girls they loved. Despite a conscious attempt to reconstruct the events of their adolescence over the course of the novel, the boys realize that they are no closer to understanding the reasons for the girls' suicides than they were in the announcement of Mary's death in the book's first line. As the boys themselves grow older, their "thinning hair" and "soft bellies" signal the gradual approach of death. They must deal not simply with the lack of insight into the girls, but with the disintegration of what little knowledge they have. These decaying "pieces" are both abstract bits of knowledge and the disintegrating artifacts of the girls' lives that the boys have carefully collected and catalogued. Thus, the decay of the boys' memory is mirrored both in the decay of their environment and in the decay of their own bodies, just as the decay of the Lisbon household was mirrored both in the girls' bodies and in the disintegration of the Lisbon property.
Saddened by this intrusion of the physical world, the boys in this passage systematically reject the physical categories of age and gender, which have informed so much of the book, as ultimately inconsequential. Instead, the boys nurse their unanswered love, mourning the selfishness of the girls, who disappeared without ever hearing their call or deigning to reply. Sure of the saving power of love, the boys must believe that their cries were never heard. They can never admit the possibility that their cries were heard and rejected, or heard and ignored, and that perhaps suicide is not simply the girls' ignorance, but their deliberate reply.