Review: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Title: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold
Obtained: borrowed from library
Little Brown
Rating: 4/5


When we first meet Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. As she looks down from this strange new place, she tells us, in the fresh and spirited voice of a fourteen-year-old girl, a tale that is both haunting and full of hope.
In the weeks following her death, Susie watches life continuing without her–her school friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her family holding out hope that she’ll be found, her killer trying to cover his tracks. As months pass without leads, Susie sees her parents’ marriage being contorted by loss, her sister hardening herself in an effort to stay strong, and her little brother trying to grasp the meaning of the word gone.
And she explores the place called heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counselors to help newcomers adjust and friends to room with. Everything she ever wanted appears as soon as she thinks of it–except the thing she wants most: to be back with the people she loved on Earth.
With compassion, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie sees her loved ones pass through grief and begin to mend. Her father embarks on a risky quest to ensnare her killer. Her sister undertakes a feat of remarkable daring. And the boy Susie cared for moves on, only to find himself at the center of a miraculous event. (from the dust jacket)

The Cover

First, I just want to comment that the colors on the cover are very relaxing. Cool blues and greens are supposed to have a calming effect. The bracelet on the cover was Susie’s–she was wearing it when she was murdered. The single image (the bracelet) draws your attention; I was pleased to note that the bracelet, or at least the charms, turn up at multiple intervals in the novel.

The Plot

First, I have to say that I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, and will probably someday get around to seeing it, but I haven’t seen it yet, so it hasn’t tainted the review.

Second, I had a difficult time reading this book. Not because the writing was terrible (it wasn’t), and not because I was bored (I wasn’t), but because the descriptions of Mr. Harvey were very disturbing. For example:

“What I think was hardest for me to realize was that he had tried each time to stop himself. He had killed animals, taking lesser lives to keep from killing a child.” (p. 131)

Mr. Harvey goes around killing neighborhood pets to keep from killing children. This obviously doesn’t work, but he tries. What this tells me is that he knows his crime is wrong, and he commits lesser crimes (can you go to prison for killing a kitten?) to keep from committing murder. All in all, the description of Mr. Harvey and how he lives disturbed me more than anything else.

“He had perfected his patter to the police, a certain obsequious innocence peppered with wonder about their procedures or useless ideas that he presented as if they might help. Bringing up the Ellis boy with Fenerman had been a good stroke, and the lie that he was a widower always helped. He fashioned a wife out of whatever victim he’d recently been taking pleasure in his memory, and to flesh her out there was always his mother.” (p. 175)

I really loved the way this book was written. Despite being disgusted with Mr. Harvey, I loved Sebold’s descriptions of him. I suppose, in a way, being disgusted with the killer is another way of saying the author really hooked me with her writing/characters.

I also want to talk about Susie’s family. We see, as time goes on, that Mrs. Salmon leaves Mr. Salmon and eventually makes her way to California, where she ends up working at a vineyard. Mrs. Salmon intrigued me. She is so desperate to escape her daughter’s death, to forget it ever happened, that she leaves her family (essentially abandoning them), and even goes so far as to have an affair with the lead detective on the case, Fenerman. Her leaving doesn’t sit too well with the family, especially the children. Lindsey, Susie’s sister, seems to adjust pretty well. She mourns her sister, joining in on the one-year anniversary vigil the neighborhood has in the cornfield (her mother, it is interesting to note, does not participate in this vigil, again showing that she does not want to remember the death of her daughter). Buckley, the youngest child, is so young when Susie dies that he doesn’t remember her much; but boy, does he remember his mother leaving, even going so far as to say, “Fuck you” to her when she attempts to talk to him after her return.

Mr. Salmon is the only one in the family who can’t seem to let go of Susie. It is interesting that we have two polar opposites in reactions to death: Mr. Salmon grieves to the point of self-destruction, and Mrs. Salmon is in complete denial.

It is in the children that we see the natural movement of grieving; Lindsey eventually moves on and finds a boyfriend (later, he becomes her husband). She becomes well-adjusted, though at first she has difficulty, since all people see when they look at her is her dead sister. Ray and Ruth, respectively, also grow from Susie’s death. Ray mourns her, mourns their only kiss, and moves on to go to college. Ruth, who eventually moves to New York, becomes what we would probably think of as a medium, or a psychic. All three children have learned from the experience, grown from it.

I found this book to be a joy to read, despite being disturbed by Mr. Harvey. It was, above all, truthful; we don’t all respond the same way to death; we don’t all grieve the same way, and I love that Sebold was honest in her characters. Even though the family never has closure (they, at least within the confines of the novel, never find out what happens to Mr. Harvey), it’s okay. It’s rare that I read a book and don’t become frustrated by the lack of closure at the end, but in this case I didn’t mind it so much.


4 thoughts on “Review: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

  1. Kathie says:

    I read this book and overall liked it…after reading Sebold’s book Lucky, I certainly understand where her writing comes from a lot better. I really recommend Lucky if you haven’t read it already. I saw the movie for The Lovely Bones and felt it paled in comparison….I was really disappointed.

    • Jen says:

      I heard the movie The Lovely Bones didn’t do the book justice. It’s on my “eventually I’ll probably see it. maybe.” list. I’ll have to check out Lucky sometime. Thanks for the rec!

  2. Patti Smith says:

    I reviewed The Lovely Bones when I first started blogging in January

    I wasn’t planning on seeing the movie then and I’m still not. There is no way the movie could ever do justice to the depth of the characters and the story itself…

    • Jen says:

      I went back and forth for a while about reading this book. Eventually I just sucked it up and picked it up at the library.

      I might see the movie eventually, just to compare, but I’m not going into it expecting the same thing as I got from the book. That would be setting myself up for a let-down.

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