Recent Reads: “The Lovely Bones” – Alice Sebold

Being the LOTR nerd that I am, I knew for a while that Peter Jackson had been working on bringing Alice Sebold’s novel “The Lovely Bones” to the big screen.  Of course I wanted to see the movie as soon as I knew he was working on it, but I also knew I had to read the book, too.

Lovely Bones cover

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication Date: 2002

Genre: Contemporary fiction / coming-of-age story

My Rating: 4.5 / 5

“The Lovely Bones” has a quite harrowing first chapter.  Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by her neighbor George Harvey.  From that point on, Susie narrates the story from heaven.  She watches as her family struggles to accept her death, the police begin their investigation of her murder, and Mr. Harvey continuing his life as if nothing had ever happened.   She also keeps a close eye on friends from her life on Earth, particularly her introverted acquaintance Ruth Connors and her first crush Ray Singh.

In the midst of her observations of what happens on Earth, Susie describes her personalized heaven to the reader.  It is full of her favorite things and colors and sometimes reflects her moods or thoughts.  It’s also the place where Susie comes to terms with her own death – and with the fact that she eventually must distance herself from the world she was once part of.

As much as this novel is about Susie’s “coming of age,” it’s also the story of the people she loved.  The reader gains insight to every relationship possible: Susie’s parents drifting apart, her grandmother’s bonding with the family after Susie’s death, and the unusual friendship between Ray and Ruth, just to name a few.  I was most impressed (and deeply saddened) with Sebold’s portrayal of the Salmon family after Susie’s death.  Jack (father), Lindsey (younger sister), and Buckley (younger brother) seem to grow closer, while Susie’s mother Abigail starts drifting away.  Sebold explores this using lots of examples, showing rather than telling to make the reader feel the estrangement even more.  The best example is the scene where the Salmon family discovers there’s a vigil for Susie on the first anniversary of her death, and Abigail refuses to go.

My only complaint about “The Lovely Bones” also has to do with how these relationships were portrayed.  The majority of the adult relationships (Jack & Abigail, Ray’s parents) seem to be troubled, as if there is no hope or love to be found.  Yet, the relationships between the younger characters (Ray and Susie, Ray and Ruth, Lindsey and her boyfriend Sam) are peaceful and balanced, as if one is the other’s perfect match.  I found this a little hard to believe, and very naive on Sebold’s part.  In real life, teens and young adults are still learning how to make successful relationships.  In this book, though, they make it seem so easy.   Why is that?  I’ve thought about this question, but can’t seem to come up with a good answer.

My favorite scene from “The Lovely Bones”… is probably Ray and Susie’s lovemaking scene.  Yes, Susie may be dead, but Sebold wrote this scene in such a way that’s hopeful and endearing without being overly sexual.  I also sympathized with Susie here: Obviously a greater power in heaven was giving her the opportunity to experience something she never had when she was alive, and she leapt at the chance.  Yet, when she returns to heaven, she knows it was her only chance – and that she would never get to be with Ray again.

This is the second book in a row that I just could not put down after I started reading it.  It’s a unique read as well.  I doubt that many authors have tried writing a book from the perspective of someone who died (or was murdered) young.  I’m sure it’s no easy feat, and somehow Sebold managed to write a story from this perspective effortlessly.  Sometimes the flashbacks made it feel a bit whimsy (then again, that could be Susie’s personality) and also difficult to grasp the chronological order of the story’s events.  But this and the book’s heavy subject matter shouldn’t frighten off readers.  It’s sprinkled with enough light moments and small triumphs that you’ll get wrapped up in Susie’s personal growth in the afterlife.  And maybe it will spark some questions about what happens to us when we die – and how much we can touch the lives of those we’ve affected long after we’re gone.

I couldn’t find a website for Alice Sebold.  So here are a couple links pertaining to “The Lovely Bones” novel and upcoming movie (which I’m now looking forward to seeing very much!).

Wikipedia: “The Lovely Bones”

“The Lovely Bones” Official Movie Website

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