The Lovely Bones
Little Brown & Company
Publication Date: June, 2002
288 Pages, $21.95
Date Reviewed: July 8, 2003
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003
How do you review a phenomenon like 'The Lovely Bones'? A book that's been reviewed literally thousands of times, by scholars, pros, and readers both casual and serious. A book that's been firmly lodged at or near the top of the NY Times bestseller list since it first roared (or maybe soared) into the world back in 2002. A book that seems destined to stay on the bestseller list for eons, like 'Bridges of Madison County' or 'Angela's Ashes', both of which it leaves in the dust. A book that could easily sink under the weight of exalted expectations, but doesn't. What's new to say?
Alice Sebold's 'The Lovely Bones' found its way into my life quite casually about a year ago. Eager for a break from my normal mystery/detective reading fare, and intrigued both by its many glowing reviews and the premise of the story, I bought it to read on the plane during a short flight to southern California for R&R with a friend - my lightweight little airplane book. What a terrible choice.
'The Lovely Bones' is a ripple book. A stone is thrown in the water and the story is about the consequential ripples. The stone in this case is the rape and murder of 14-year old Susie Salmon. Grisly and horrible, and for many potential readers, a turn-off. But certainly not for a mystery/detective fan who reads body count books by the dozens.
Having been identified, searched, unshod, identified, grouped, herded and identified again (small middle-aged women are apparently prime movers in the axis of evil), I found my airplane seat and started to read. My reaction was immediate, and visceral. Sebold's description of Susie's capture, torture, rape and subsequent murder is far more realistic, more suspenseful and terrifying, more physical than all but the best mystery writers. In part, this is because the victim is a child and she's telling her own story. But more so because Sebold writes with a slow hand, pacing this horror with care, so no detail goes unnoticed, no sight, no smell, no action goes unmentioned. It's a vivid, riveting, sickening chapter that had me curled in my seat, knees to chest for protection. I had to stop reading, both to catch my breath and to pull myself back together for the upcoming weekend's fun. This first chapter doesn't put you in the mind for fun.
Fast forward past a great dinner with my friend, filled with catch-up talk and stupid jokes, to bedtime, normally a time to read before falling to sleep. I pick up the book, open it, then close it and put it down, afraid to start reading, afraid of what's next, afraid to get hooked. Early the next morning, I begin reading again, now past the horror and into the beginnings of the ripples of Susie's story, her friends, her school, her parents, her siblings, all viewed from above. When fun beckons, I put it down, reluctantly and with a sense of loss. Thus goes the weekend. Brief reading stints, interrupted by fun. Not that that's a bad thing, but throughout, some part of my head was with Susie and her story.
Fast forward again, to the return flight. Waiting in the terminal to board the plane, I again begin to read. And I begin to cry. Somewhat embarrassed, I stop reading and ultimately also stop crying. Aboard the plane, safely in my seat and regrouped, I re-open the book, ready for an uninterrupted hour of pure, isolated reading. I'm not sure now exactly where I am in the story, which poignant scene is unfolding, but the tears are once again streaming, uncontrollably. The flight attendant offers me extra napkins. This is truly ridiculous. I stop reading, unwilling to make a fool of myself in public, and unwilling to share such emotion with a bunch of strangers on a plane. Will I ever finish this book?
Well, I did finish this book, in the solitude of my house, tears streaming many a time, box of Kleenex at the ready. And I was well rewarded. It is an exceptional story, told from a unique perspective, of people and their lives in the aftermath of horror. The earth-rooted events Susie watches and relates, but can't control, are real and heartbreaking. The eventual acceptance, Susie of her life in heaven, and her family and friends of their lives on earth without her, is exactly as it should be. Stone, ripples, then calm. It's one of the most life-affirming, joyous books you'll find.
'The Lovely Bones' is a standout not only because of Sebold's superb writing skill, her unexcelled ability to observe and put to words a story with full nuance and dimension, but for its sheer conceptual originality. Who has such vision and such a deft, subtle way with character, such simplicity, such gentleness, and such elegance? I am in awe of Sebold's talent, and thankful for it. 'The Lovely Bones' is obviously on my very short list of the best books I've ever read, and I think of it again and again, and expect to do so for quite some time. It haunts me.
Is it a woman's book I'm asked by (obviously male) friends? Not really. 'Ya Ya Sisters' can be fairly described as a woman's book, as can 'Bridges', but 'The Lovely Bones' would be unjustly labeled so. The fine writing, the compelling story told from a unique perspective, and the mix of horror, frustration, and the humanity of these characters transcend gender. Men can read it with testosterone levels intact, on the sly and sans Kleenex, although I dare any man to read the first chapter without experiencing some gut-wrenching sense of loss. But someone is keeping this book on the top of the bestseller lists, and my guess is that it's not women. Most of us have read it already.