Review: Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’

jackson-and-the-lovely-bonesInitially, I never intended to read The Lovely Bones because I assumed it was a touchy-feely tearjerker about the brutal death of a child and how a family copes with their loss.  And well, who needs that if you read the newspapers or even watch the evening news?   Let’s face it, the media never seems to have a shortage of stories covering the depravity of humankind towards children.  Quite frankly, it’s depressing.  That was initially, when the book was first published, several years ago.

However, when the book came out in paperback a couple of years later, I was lured by the hype and hyperbole of glowing book reviews and Costco’s low prices. Yes, indeed, I succumbed to the pressure of mass marketing and found myself the owner of a brand new paperback edition of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

I have to admit that the first reading of the book a few years ago left me vaguely dissatisfied.  Now don’t get me wrong.  The writing was excellent.  The details and authenticity of the characters were creative and compelling.  The story line was engaging and well paced.  And the first person voice of the fourteen years old, alliteratively named, Susie Salmon, the victim, who narrates the story was pure genius.

After all, it is practically the ultimate voyeuristic experience, going inside the mind of the victim, seeing through her eyes, before, during and after her brutal rape and murder by a neighbor, and then following her to heaven and then back to earth again.  Talk about your creative license!  Isn’t that what good literature is all about?  It takes us above and beyond the ordinary, engages us in a world we would not otherwise know, and allows us to feel, think and see, through the eyes of another, from a different perspective.  It nourishes our minds and emotions and broadens our horizons.  The Lovely Bones satisfies all these criteria, and does so with a sense of quiet composure and restraint.

My issue with the story when I first read the book has to do with the devastating effect of Susie’s death on Mrs. Salmon, Susie’s mother.  Specifically, Mrs. Salmon’s reaction to the tragedy was almost incomprehensible to me.  It felt self-indulgent, destructive and irrational.  Mrs. Salmon deals with her grief by avoidance and withdrawal.   Among other things she engages in inappropriate behavior with a detective who is investigating the case.  It is a selfish betrayal of her family in their time of need that compounds the damage already done to them.   For this reason I found it difficult to identify with the mother.

Having recently reread the story, I have to admit, I was once again captivated by the writing and story line.  We (the readers) witness how Susie’s friends and family interact in a slow process of healing that spans over the years.  We see the indelible scars that are created by Susie’s passing and the grievous damage that is caused by the murderer, Mr. Harvey, which infects the family like a malignant tumor.   The author uses this tactic effectively as a resonating device that reveals the vast repercussions of Mr. Harvey’s diabolical act.

It was after the second reading of the book that I came to realize, I didn’t need to identify with the character of Susie’s mother or even to understand her motives.  As in real life, there are people who behave in ways we can’t understand.  Their motives and reactions belong to their own internal universe.  As with Mr. Harvey, we can probably never know or relate to why he committed his crimes.  And so Mrs. Salmon is given a pass, allowed to indulge in her own sorrow in her own way because, in part, we are not privy to the inner turmoil of others.  We cannot pick and choose how they will react, what they will think or say.

Herein lies the brilliance of the story.   The vast range of emotions and reactions to Susie’s death, including her Mom’s, is yet another resonating device that underscores the uniqueness of individual reactions and chides us to remember that we can probably never know the mind of someone else.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I wasn’t even going to read the book.  But I’m glad I did.  In fact, I got even more out of it in the second reading.  It is a beautifully constructed, multi-layered story that will draw you in and hold you captive to the very end.  Best of all, it is not the total sob-fest-worthy-of-a-group-hug, that I had initially envisioned.  It is a measured and intriguing story that will certainly entertain and runs a gamut of emotions, leaving you satisfied at the end by proffering the remarkable gift of closure.

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The Lovely Bones is currently in production as a feature film directed by Peter Jackson starring Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon. Its scheduled to be released on December 11, 2009.

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