Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones
A Novel
by Alice Sebold
(c) 2002
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Pages: 352

In preparing to write my own review of The Lovely Bones, I went looking online for reminders of the character's names and plot events etc because it's been weeks since I finished the novel and I've read several more since then. I noticed a pattern in that the ones most likely to appear in 'respectable' publications (as opposed to blogs or book talk forums) tend to take issue with the way Sebold chose to end her novel. Their problem seems to be that it's too 'feel-good'.

Take this review by Laura Miller who sees the ending as a failure of will on the part of Sebold to maintain a clear-eyed, unsentimental willingness to track, in the words of Sebold's protagonist, "the real article, the true story" and instead succumbs to "prime-time-style inspirational confectionary" ala Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven, which Miller seems to accuse of being 'middle-brow' fare created for those who are 'perpetually jonesing for synthetic hope."

Now it is hard to know what specific event(s) at the end the novel is so objectionable to Miller and the rest as neither she nor the others clarified it. I suppose because it would have involved spoilers for those who hadn't read it. But the feeling I get from their circumlocutions and metaphors is that they find the happiness itself the problem and the outcomes in the various survivors lives contrived to bring about that happiness. Assuming I'm correct in assuming this then I have a problem with their problem. For I see nothing at all contrived about any of the resolutions at the end. They all grow organically out of the story.

Of course it would be hard for me to support that thesis without providing spoilers myself nor could I do a good job of it without rereading the novel to harvest the supporting evidence. So I'm just going to leave that hanging there to provoke thought on the part of anyone reading this review who may have already read or be planning to read this book. I would love hearing any thoughts along this line you might have--either in comments or via email.

The Lovely Bones is a coming of age story narrated by a young girl who is watching her family, friends and community cope with the aftermath of her murder. 14 year old Susie Salmon was brutally raped, murdered and then dismembered and stuffed in a safe which was then dropped in a sinkhole. In the weeks, months and years that follow she watches from her personal heaven the devastating impact of her loss upon her parents, siblings, grandmother, close friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors and the detective who headed the investigation. Each of these must internalize the meaning of what happened to Susie for themselves, must learn to move through the grief and find a way to say Yes! to life again.

There is her father who smashes all the ships-in-a-bottle which Susie had helped him construct and then withdraws from the family to sit in a chair in his office where those ships had been built and displayed, staring out the window onto the field where Susie had died. There is her mother who withdraws into herself and eventually across the country. There is her sister, two years younger, who resembles Susie to such a degree that she takes to bathing in the dark so she won't catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror. There is her brother, not quite five, who finds comfort under Susie's bed. There is Ray, the boy who left a love note in Susie's notebook during class, a note which Susie had not known existed until ribbons of it turned up along with shreds of her biology notes in a nest that fell out of a tree. This note made Ray, briefly, a suspect. There is Ruth, the girl who was sure she had felt Susie's spirit whoosh through her on its way past as she stood in the school parking lot on the edge of the field where she had died. There is the biology teacher whose own daughter is dying of cancer, the neighbor lady whose dog brought Susie's elbow home, the detective who adds Susie's picture to the stack photos of missing or dead girls and women whose cases have gone unsolved which he carries in his pocket.

And there is the man, a neighbor, who was her murderer. Who she learns is a serial murderer.

The impact of her death and its brutality caused fissures to open up in the hearts and lives of her family and friends and it would have been utterly understandable if any one or all of them had succumbed to despair and allowed those fissures to widen into an abyss into which they could throw themselves. But none of them did. Oh, they seemed to be headed that way at first. Their initial response of withdrawal into their grief was the catalyst for disintegration within each heart, the family unit and the community.

It was only when they reached out and entwined their hearts and their lives once more that true healing began. And once it began it spread as surely and inexorably as the despair had until everybody was drawn back into community. (Well, everyone except Susie's killer.) Is this, I wonder, the problem the reviewers I discussed above had? That everyone ended up stronger in the end and able to access the joy of life again? Was this the betrayal of the 'literary' bent of the first 95% of the story they speak of? Does a true 'literary' story have to emphasize the ugly, give more weight to despair than to joy in order to have perceived 'gravitas'? If so then I have a problem with their definition of 'literary'.

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This is the second of my three contributions to the Herding Cats challenge.

1 tell me a story:

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