Study Guide

Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold Essay - Critical Essays

Sebold, Alice

Introduction

Alice Sebold 1963-

American novelist and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Sebold's career through 2003.

Sebold is the author of a memoir, Lucky (1999), and the best-selling novel The Lovely Bones (2002). Both of the author's works share similar thematic ground and explore the detrimental effects of rape and brutality on the lives of young women and their families. Sebold has been praised for handling such dark material in honest, provocative, and imaginative ways. Upon its publication, Time magazine pronounced The Lovely Bones “the breakout fiction debut of the year,” and it received enthusiastic endorsement by leading critics and such literary giants as the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The book's critical acclaim, coupled with aggressive promotion on The Today Show and other national television programs, ignited its overwhelming commercial success. The Lovely Bones became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, reaping unprecedented sales for a debut novel. In 2002, The Lovely Bones received the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel, the American Booksellers Association's “Book of the Year Award,” and a nomination for best novel from the Horror Writers Association.

Biographical Information

Sebold was born in 1963, and grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, an environment which provided her with themes, settings, and narrative inspiration for her literary work. Sebold studied at Syracuse University from 1980 to 1984 and graduated from the University of Houston. As an eighteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse, she was severely beaten and raped. After recognizing her assailant in public, Sebold played an integral role in his arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. Upon graduation, Sebold moved to New York City for 10 years, where she unsuccessfully pursued writing, worked a series of odd jobs, and abused alcohol and heroin. In 1998, she received her M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine's esteemed writing program. While there she began work on Lucky and met novelist Glen David Gold. Sebold and Gold married in 2001 and settled in Long Beach, California.

Major Works

Lucky began as a graduate-school writing assignment and evolved into Sebold's first book, an unsparingly detailed account of the author's violent rape and its emotional aftermath. The book chronicles each episode of Sebold's experience, from the actual attack to her recovery, highlighting the reactions of family and friends, the courtroom drama, Sebold's descent into alcohol and drug use, and denial. Lucky illustrates the far-reaching effects of Sebold's assault, both in her life and the lives of those around her, including the rape of her roommate—an apparent act of revenge by friends of Sebold's assailant. The book's title, derived from a police officer's comment that she was “lucky” compared to a young woman who was murdered and dismembered in the same location where Sebold was raped and beaten, sets an ironic and direct tone that continues throughout the memoir. Sebold has stated that reporting her real-life saga in Lucky was part of the process of creating her debut novel, The Lovely Bones. The two works explore shared motifs and are often viewed as counterparts. The Lovely Bones is narrated from heaven by protagonist Susie Salmon, a fourteen-year-old who is raped, killed, and dismembered near her suburban Pennsylvania home. In the first chapter, Susie describes in graphic detail her murder at the hands of Mr. Harvey, a neighbor. The subsequent parts of the novel concern the impact of Susie's disappearance on her family and friends. From an omniscient perspective, Susie watches as her death wreaks havoc on her parents: Susie's mother betrays her marriage and abandons the family while her father hunts obsessively for the killer. Susie maintains a close bond with her sister, through whom she vicariously experiences the life that her untimely death denied her. Her brother, too young to have known Susie in life, struggles with the memory of his sister and discovers a connection with Susie's spirit. Furthermore, Susie establishes spiritual links with those outside of her family when she inhabits the body of a schoolmate, Ruth, to make love to a boy with whom Susie had shared a kiss before she died. In time, Susie's family and friends are reunited and healed of the pain and alienation caused by the inexplicable tragedy of Susie's disappearance.

Critical Reception

Sebold's memoir, Lucky, though not a runaway best-seller like The Lovely Bones, was critically acclaimed for its raw, unsentimental treatment of the author's brutal rape. In the Times Literary Supplement, Joyce Carol Oates lauded Lucky, describing it as “terse, ironic, controlled and graphic,” and citing it as a unique, untraditional memoir written with “originality of insight and expression.” Other critics preferred Lucky's direct and grounded message to the fantastical premise of The Lovely Bones. In fact, feminist critic and scholar Andrea Dworkin called Lucky, in comparison to The Lovely Bones, “the more important book.” Still, much of the literary world embraced The Lovely Bones as a lyrical and emotionally wrenching work. Reviewers hailed the novel's well-placed humor, skillful narration, and redemptive conclusion. Moreover, many critics marveled at Sebold's originality and craftsmanship despite a plot that could potentially border on cliché. However, not all critics celebrated the novel. Some commentators found Sebold's narrative overripe, manipulative, and mawkish. Reviewer Philip Hensher characterized it as “a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy,” describing its moral as “one which any thinking person will resent and reject.” Although commentators are divided on the literary merit of Sebold's work, her books have garnered significant interest from critics and readers alike.

Principal Works

Lucky (memoir) 1999

The Lovely Bones (novel) 2002

Criticism

Alice Sebold and Ann Darby (interview date 17 June 2002)

SOURCE: Sebold, Alice, and Ann Darby. “PW Talks with Alice Sebold.” Publishers Weekly 249, no. 24 (17 June 2002): 41.

[In the following interview, Sebold discusses her narrative choices in The Lovely Bones and her plans for her next novel.]

[Darby]: Your memoir [Lucky] focused on rape—your brutal rape when you were a student at Syracuse University in 1981. Your novel, The Lovely Bones (reviewed on p. 40), is about a rape and murder. Was it a relief, or a horror, to re-imagine a rape?

[Sebold]: Oddly, it was a delight, because I loved my main character so much and I liked being with her. It was like...

(The entire section is 793 words.)

Paula L. Woods (review date 7 July 2002)

SOURCE: Woods, Paula L. “Holding On and Letting Go.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 July 2002): 7.

[In the following review, Woods describes The Lovely Bones as “a strange and beautiful amalgam of novelistic styles.”]

The mere whisper of their names is painful—Polly Klaas, Danielle van Dam, Elizabeth Smart, Shanta Johnson—for they represent a parent's unspeakable heartache and a nation's vicarious nightmare. They are the little girls, and girls are most at risk for such mayhem. Some eventually are found dead; others simply disappear. We read their stories, hear the soundbites and wonder: What really happened to these lost girls? How on Earth do...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Ron Charles (review date 25 July 2002)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “‘If I Should Die before I Wake, I Pray the Lord My Soul to Take’: In Alice Sebold's Debut Novel, the Dead Must Learn to Let Go, Too.” Christian Science Monitor (25 July 2002): 15.

[In the following review, Charles admires The Lovely Bones for its utilization of both horror and beauty.]

Don't start Lovely Bones unless you can finish it. The book begins with more horror than you could imagine, but closes with more beauty than you could hope for.

Still, there are reasons not to open this runaway bestseller. In the first chapter, 14-year-old Susie Salmon describes how she was enticed into a little cave by a...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

Charlotte Abbott (essay date 29 July 2002)

SOURCE: Abbott, Charlotte. “How About Them Bones?” Publishers Weekly 249, no. 30 (29 July 2002): 22-4.

[In the following essay, Abbott chronicles The Lovely Bones's path to success and describes the marketing and publicity efforts behind the novel.]

With an impressive 925,000 copies in print after 11 printings, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones has outpaced the sales of any other first novel in memory, reaching Oprah-level numbers in its first month on sale without the endorsement of any TV or newspaper book club. Booksellers are already comparing it to such long-running blockbusters as Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and Charles Frazier's...

(The entire section is 2321 words.)

Lisa Allardice (review date 19 August 2002)

SOURCE: Allardice, Lisa. Review of The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. New Statesman 131, no. 4601 (19 August 2002): 39.

[In the following review, Allardice contends that the characters and narrative of The Lovely Bones are overly conventional and fail to fulfill the novel's potential.]

“The dead don't die. They look on and help,” D H Lawrence once wrote. This consoling platitude lies at the heart of The Lovely Bones, a bestseller and critical triumph in America. Narrated by the spirit of a murdered teenager as she observes her grieving family from heaven, Sebold's at once brutally real and fanciful first novel is often as queasily sentimental...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Sarah Churchwell (review date 23 August 2002)

SOURCE: Churchwell, Sarah. “A Neato Heaven.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5186 (23 August 2002): 19.

[In the following review, Churchwell praises the first half of The Lovely Bones, but derides the novel's latter half, calling it “saccharine” and “false.”]

Alice Sebold's first novel [The Lovely Bones], which has been top of the American bestseller lists for weeks, is narrated by fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon, who has just been raped and murdered by a serial killer and is now in heaven sadly watching the effects of her death on her family and friends. Not a murder mystery (Susie knows perfectly well who killed her, and doesn't dissemble),...

(The entire section is 956 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date autumn 2002)

SOURCE: Review of The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Virginia Quarterly Review 78, no. 4 (autumn 2002): 126.

[In the following review, the critic praises Sebold's The Lovely Bones, citing the author's originality and attention to detail.]

If someone were to recommend to me a book about a murdered 14-year-old girl who tells her tale from Heaven, I would flee, fearful of drowning in sentiment and cliché. Much to my surprise, and to Sebold's considerable skills as a novelist, this book [The Lovely Bones]—which does indeed adopt the voice of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a next-door neighbor—is fresh,...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Stephen H. Webb (review date 9-22 October 2002)

SOURCE: Webb, Stephen H. “Earth from Above.” Christian Century 119, no. 21 (9-22 October 2002): 20-2.

[In the following review, Webb reflects on The Lovely Bones, highlighting the novel's unique perspective and its depiction of heaven.]

In the most powerful opening chapter of any novel I have read, 14-year-old Susie Salmon narrates the hellish scene of her own brutal rape and murder—from heaven [in The Lovely Bones]. There are many stories about people witnessing their own funeral, but this bold move transcends such pedestrian plot tricks. It allows the author to document the terrible consequences of human depravity from the heights of divine...

(The entire section is 1766 words.)

Rebecca Mead (review date 17 October 2002)

SOURCE: Mead, Rebecca. “Immortally Cute.” London Review of Books 24, no. 20 (17 October 2002): 18.

[In the following favorable review, Mead suggests that The Lovely Bones feeds America's appetite for horror.]

Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, was on its 11th US printing by the end of the summer and was sitting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, a place usually reserved for Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy. The book's success is a categorial surprise, since literary novels hardly ever reach a mass audience in America; but its subject-matter is so perfectly resonant with the tenor of the times that its appeal is...

(The entire section is 2050 words.)

Gordon Phinn (review date November 2002)

SOURCE: Phinn, Gordon. “Adolescent Afterlife.” Books in Canada 31, no. 8 (November 2002): 10-11.

[In the following review, Phinn offers a negative assessment of The Lovely Bones, characterizing it as sentimental and predictable.]

In the fall of 1999, when the film The Sixth Sense was so suddenly and hugely successful, National Post columnist Len Blum, in one of his weekly columns, sought to grasp the movie's remarkable word of mouth reputation. While thinking that it obviously connected with our innate sense of unworthiness and fear of failure, he felt its major magic was to “tap into our desire to commune with loved ones who have died, to...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)

Daniel Mendelsohn (essay date 16 January 2003)

SOURCE: Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Novel of the Year.” New York Review of Books 50, no. 1 (16 January 2003): 4-8.

[In the following essay, Mendelsohn complains that The Lovely Bones suffers from poor-quality writing and has the moral, social, and emotional seriousness of sugary pop songs and TV movies of the week.]

1.

On May 22 of this year, six weeks before the official publication date of Alice Sebold's debut novel [The Lovely Bones], which is narrated from Heaven by a fourteen-year-old girl who's been raped and murdered, the novelist and former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen appeared on the Today show and...

(The entire section is 3831 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 20 June 2003)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Trauma, Coping, Recovery.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5229 (20 June 2003): 15.

[In the following review, Oates calls Lucky an “exemplary memoir,” asserting that the memoir is original and direct.]

Alice Sebold is the author of the first novel The Lovely Bones (2002), one of those bestsellers described as “runaway” to distinguish them from more lethargic bestsellers that merely slog along selling copies in the six-figure range. Though deftly marketed as an adult novel with a special appeal to women, The Lovely Bones is in fact a young-adult novel of unusual charm, ambition and originality. Its most...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)

Claudia FitzHerbert (review date 21 June 2003)

SOURCE: FitzHerbert, Claudia. “Two Bites at the Cherry.” Spectator 292, no. 9124 (21 June 2003): 65.

[In the following review, FitzHerbert compares The Lovely Bones with Lucky, finding the former an unsuccessful attempt to improve on the author's memoir.]

Alice Sebold was a freshman at Syracuse University when she was brutally raped by a stranger in a park in 1981. Several months later she recognised her attacker in the street. He was arrested, prosecuted and jailed. Sebold, a virgin at the time of the attack, was a wise-cracking clown with literary ambitions from a bookish family in Philadelphia. She was praised by a detective involved in the case as...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)

Andrea Dworkin (review date 30 June 2003)

SOURCE: Dworkin, Andrea. “A Good Rape.” New Statesman 132, no. 4644 (30 June 2003): 51-2.

[In the following review, Dworkin presents a detailed synopsis of the memoir Lucky, preferring it to Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones.]

Alice Sebold is the author of the bestselling novel The Lovely Bones, in which a teenager who has been raped, murdered and dismembered narrates the story, from heaven, of those events and the aftermath. The narration is a chilling juxtaposition of innocence against evil. Why do people read it? Can a book be truthful about the rape and murder of girls and still be a popular phenomenon?

The novel is often accused...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Doris L. Eder (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Eder, Doris L. “The Saving Powers of Memory and Imagination in Alice Sebold's Lucky and The Lovely Bones.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism 193, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Eder offers a comparison of The Lovely Bones with Sebold's memoir, Lucky, discussing the novel's characterization, structure, and imaginative perspective.]

Alice Sebold's two works published to date resemble each other in significant ways but also differ in important respects. The sardonically titled Lucky (1999),1 a memoir about the author's rape at the age of eighteen, how the rapist was brought to trial and sentenced, and how she and her family survived the experience, was written before her best-selling debut novel, The Lovely Bones (2002).2 In an interview, Sebold reveals she was struggling with a novel that had stalled when the voice of Susie Salmon suddenly entered her brain. She transcribed the first chapter of Susie's story, only to discover that she must write about her own rape and victimization fifteen years earlier in order to get her own story out of the way. Her story was obstructing the novel's progress in some way. Sebold herself acknowledges that “Lucky was part of the process of writing Lovely Bones.” She adds that, “whereas in Lovely Bones the rape and murder scene was the first thing I wrote, in Lucky it was the last.”3 The beginnings of both books are brilliant, whereas their endings are blemished and raveled. Indeed, one may consider they subvert or undermine what has gone before.

Having read these books in order of publication, I would urge readers to read them in reverse order—the novel first, the memoir afterwards. Why? Such a recommendation is not dictated by a preference for nonfiction over fiction but because, contrary to publishing history, Lucky is the more integrated and successful book. Sebold's memoir was marginalized by being shelved in mega-bookstores under “Addiction and Recovery” (addiction to rape?) and Women's Studies, and as a result did not sell well, but is less flawed than the much acclaimed Lovely Bones. The two books each illustrate the remarkable recuperative powers of memory and imagination, respectively, and it is instructive to compare the fiction with the reality that engendered it. The memoir's viewpoint is more restricted but more grounded in reality than the novel's—what, after all, could be freer, more ethereal, or limitless than the first-person omniscient olympian perspective of Susie in The Lovely Bones?

Lucky opens with a scarifying description of a rape in an underground tunnel where a murder formerly took place. From the first, rape and murder are intertwined in the victim's (as perhaps in the rapist's) mind. “I knew I was staring up into the eyes of the man who would kill me. … I was convinced that I would not live. … Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I would rather be raped …” (L [Lucky], 14-15.) Along with a feeling of absolute helplessness, this violent crime engenders a sense of the deepest alienation, as well as fear of loss of identity. As she is being raped, Alice tries to keep sane by remembering the lines of a poem. Afterwards she registers, “All that remained unpossessed was my brain.” (L, 19.) When the rapist steals her money and tries to take her driver's license, it becomes clear she fears losing her identity: “I was petrified of him having my identification. Leaving with anything other than what he had: all of me, except my brain and my belongings.” (L, 21-22.)

One striking resemblance between memoir and novel is the victim's obsession, after the event, with protecting her family. Most children expect their parents to protect them, but teenagers Alice and Susie expend inordinate time and energy trying to protect their family members. In the emotional economy of the family in Lucky, Alice is aligned with her alcoholic and panicky mother, her elder sister being closer to her cool, laid-back, professorial father. (The line-up in the Salmon household differs somewhat, Susie hovering most anxiously over her father, though she feels sympathy for her mother.) Alice's concern for her mother may strike one as excessive. She analyzes it thus: “… the way I survived in the early hours after the rape was by spiraling the obsession of how not to tell my mother over and over. … Convinced it would destroy her, I ceased thinking of what had happened to me. … My worry for her became my life raft.” (L, 28-29.) In fact, Alice's mother holds up pretty well, whereas Abigail Salmon of The Lovely Bones goes to pieces.

Whereas Jack Salmon, Susie's father, is a tower of love and strength for her and tries to pursue the man he suspects of raping and murdering his daughter in The Lovely Bones, in Lucky, Alice's father remains his undemonstrative self, incurring the wrath of his wife and other daughter when he asks how Alice could have been raped once her assailant dropped his knife. Patiently Alice reasons with him, already keenly aware that rape causes more cleavage between the sexes and between the victim and others than any other crime. To her cost, she discovers that, “after telling the hard facts to anyone … I have changed in their eyes. Often it is awe or admiration, sometimes it is repulsion, once or twice it has been fury … for reasons I remain unsure of. Some men and lesbians see it as a turn-on or a mission, as if … they can pull me back from the wreckage …” She adds that no one can save a rape victim from the consequences of rape—“You save yourself or you remain unsaved.” (L, 69.)

One way in which memoir and novel pursue different tracks is in their depictions of the police and the rapist/murderer. The character of Len Fenerman in The Lovely Bones is a pale parody of the kind of detective who inhabits most crime novels and whodunits. Fenerman (who briefly becomes Abigail's lover) discourages her husband from investigating serial rapist/murderer, Harvey. The detective's plodding investigations permit the trail to run cold; in pursuit of his adulterous affair, he even allows the murderer to skip town and evade capture. When it comes, the villain's nemesis is casual and fortuitous and has little to do with human agency. The police pay a more central role in Lucky and one or two of them earn Alice's hardwon respect.

One of Sebold's most extraordinary imaginative feats in The Lovely Bones is her portrayal of George Harvey. A remarkable study in the banality of evil, he is at once frightening and pathetic. As Laura Miller observes in a review, his portrait is without a trace of “fetishism” or, for that matter, “forgiveness.”4 The rapist in Lucky, though he terrifies his victim and continues to overshadow her as “the husband to my fate,” is one of society's failures, more a victim than Harvey, though we know little more about him than that he is black. (L, 61.)

Lucky's structure is simple, like that of The Lovely Bones. Commencing with the crime, it follows the Salmon family as its members try to come to terms with Alice's rape. She has her heart set on leading a normal life, so she returns to Syracuse University. Six months after the rape Alice sees her attacker on the street, has a sketch made of him, and calls the police. Scheduled for a workshop that day with celebrated writer Geoffrey Wolff, she excuses herself. Wolff gives her this advice: “Try, if you can, to remember everything.” Alice comes to understand that “memory could save you, that it had power, that it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, and the brutalized.” [L, 114.) She shows preternatural powers of memory and intelligence as a witness at her trial, although so frightened by the lineup beforehand that she identifies the wrong man as her assailant. In fact, Alice and her family are on the road to recovery when the rape of her best friend causes a relapse.

Lila, Alice's close friend and roommate, is raped in their rooming house. Alice tries to help Lila lovingly and responsibly, but her friend's reaction is one of denial. She has no wish to follow Alice's example in pressing charges, and she rebuffs her: “I know you want to take care of me, but you can't. I don't want to be touched. Not by you, not by anybody,” she declares. (L, 231.) The aftermath of this second encounter with rape by proxy is that Alice lapses into despair, all hope of leading a normal life draining away. She fails to graduate, going to Houston and then New York, where she drifts into the life of dissipation and debauchery detailed in the Epilogue. The Epilogue to Lucky is a mistake, as much an excrescence on her memoir as the sudden incursion of Susie from heaven into earth is a betrayal of the established viewpoint and of Sebold's first novel as a whole.

The Lovely Bones covers a time span of about a decade. After her rape and murder by Harvey in December 1973, Susie watches over her family from heaven. She sees her father beginning to harbor suspicions about her murderer, which he confides to detective Fenerman, only to have Fenerman warn him off. Eventually, Salmon becomes so convinced of Harvey's guilt that, when he observes a figure prowling at night through the Stolfuz cornfield where Susie met her end, he follows. But this turns out not to be Harvey—just one of Susie's former schoolmates keeping a tryst; Salmon is beaten up for his pains. He is permanently lamed by this encounter, so Lindsey takes up the cudgels for her father. She breaks into Harvey's house, discovering a drawing he made of the cornfield and the underground dugout into which he lured Susie. Lindsey runs off with this, though Harvey, returning home, sees her as she clears his garden. Harvey then disappears.

Abigail, Susie's mother, meanwhile tries desperately to embark on a new life; she has an affair with Lenerman, even as her husband lies in hospital. She leaves him. A few months later her mother comes to live with the Salmons to take care of the children. Lindsey grows up and is engaged to her boyfriend Samuel, while Ruth—a girl Susie brushed by on her way to heaven, who has, as a result, become obsessed with the dead girl—pairs off with Susie's former boyfriend, Ray Singh. When Jack Salmon has a heart attack, Abigail returns and Susie's parents are reconciled. Salmon recovers, Lindsey and Samuel marry, and Susie temporarily reincarnates herself in Ruth so that Ray can make love to her. The Lovely Bones ends with Susie finally leaving go of Earth and her family to graduate to a more advanced heaven.

In a workshop at the University of California at Irvine, where the author took her MFA in Writing, Sebold said that her agent and editor responded to a capsule description of the book thus: “If you had told me that was what it was about, we never would have bought it,” but they added, “Thank God we got to read it.”5 Similarly, Ron Charles's review of The Lovely Bones is right in pointing out that mere plot summary makes this novel sound “mawkish, like a ghastly version of Beloved for white suburbia.”6 Other critics note that its concept, voice, and perspective make this novel a high-wire act, with most finding the author negotiating the tightrope successfully. I dissent, finding the novel mawkish at times. Sebold occasionally lapses into “inspirational” prose reminiscent of Hallmark or Deepak Chopra. Consider, for instance, this comment on life on earth: “I had taken this time to fall in love … with the sort of helplessness I had not felt in death—the helplessness of being alive, the dark bright pity of being human—feeling as you went, groping in corners and opening your arms to light …” (LB [The Lovely Bones], 309.) Or Susie's description of how she falls from heaven to become incarnated in Ruth, while Ruth temporarily ascends to take her place: “I was a soul back on Earth. AWOL a little while from heaven …” (LB, 302.) The first passage teeters between the sublime and the sentimental; the second is limping humor.

Nevertheless, The Lovely Bones is a feat, a tribute to its author's imagination: its perspective is challenging and interesting, its narrative voice is generally compelling, and its style is appealing, sometimes even memorable. One agrees with Dennis McLellan and Michiko Kakutani in finding the point of view, combining “the warmth of a first-person narrative and the freedom of an omniscient one,” artful and beguiling.7 The omniscient voice is often considered out of date and the first person loose. However, as she distances herself from her family, as she contemplates the “lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent” that proliferate after her death, Susie finds herself able “to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.” (LB, 320.) A good description of earned omniscience.

The characterization of the Salmon family is also persuasive, particularly the portraits of Jack Salmon and Lindsey. Salmon is the center of his family. He loves all his children and feels overwhelming guilt at not having been able to prevent Susie's rape and death. He never stops loving his wife, though she abandons him temporarily. Because of this, their reconciliation is believable. (Abigail's character is, however, problematic.) Susie's sister Lindsey is an admirable character, the one seen most “in the round,” for she achieves independence from the narrator despite the fact that Susie identifies with her as a “twin,” more closely than with anyone else. “In watching her I found I could get lost more than with anyone else,” Susie comments. (LB, 232). Attractive and plucky, Lindsey moves from sheer terror, roused as she embodies the “Walking Dead Syndrome,” in which “other people see the dead person and don't see you,” (LB, 59) to resolute pursuit of her own life and happiness. She is the catalyst who enables Susie finally to “let go.” Reviewer Tony Buchsbaum observes that Lindsey “seems to internalize the violence, reshaping her life around it the way an oyster uses … a grain of sand to make a pearl.”8

Buckley, the youngest child, is only four when Susie is murdered and not much older when his mother leaves, so must digest two great losses at a tender age. With his father's help, he absorbs the first loss better than the second. This child's character is complex, somewhat schizoid. Intensely loving toward his father, Buckley internalizes his hatred for his mother: “He had been keeping, daily, weekly, yearly, an underground storage room of hate. Deep inside this, the four-year-old sat, his heart flashing. Heart to stone, heart to stone.” (LB, 269.) A kind of triangulation occurs among Susie, her father, and her brother at critical moments—when, for instance, Salmon has a heart attack and stands at the threshold of death. Buck prays for his survival; Susie would like him to die and join her on the other side; both children want their father for themselves.

The characters of Abigail Salmon, Ruth Connors, and Len Fenerman are less satisfactory. Abigail seems hollow and negative; Ruth is contrived, and Len Fenerman is deliberately plodding and colorless. The weak link in the Salmon family, Abigail is a woman with a touch of alienation about her, who had no vocation for motherhood and so, Susie says, “had been punished in the most horrible and unimaginable way for never having wanted me.” (LB, 266.) She did love her elder daughter, probably subconsciously blaming herself for Susie's death, yet needing to deny this and run away—“she needed Len to drive the dead daughter out.” (LB, 152.) Grandmother Lynn, a spirited former alcoholic, brings fresh air into the Salmon household when she takes Abigail's place.

The poet Ruth Connors is a feminist with lesbian leanings who becomes obsessed with victimized women and children, keeping journals about them. She resembles Alice, as portrayed in Lucky, in being bohemian, weird, and slightly old-fashioned. But she strikes the reader as more of a plot device than a character in her own right.

Harvey, the serial killer, is given a convincing background. As a child he was his mother's accomplice in stealing, pilfering, and scavenging even from the dead. His mother is driven off by his father and afterwards he internalizes her, seeking women and little girls as victims. He is diabolically canny and astute, enabling him to throw the police offtrack. When Fenerman comes to search his house after Lindsey shows him the drawing she took, Harvey simulates sympathy for the Salmons, explaining the drawing as his way of figuring out how the crime might have been committed. Asked why he didn't share his speculations with the police, he responds this would not have brought the dead girl back and that he was afraid of appearing a meddling amateur!

As for the novel's otherworldly setting, critics are wont to praise Susie's heaven as an inspiration. Sebold says she dispensed with many versions of heaven before settling on this one. Susie's high-school heaven is a teenager's delight: “There were no teachers. … We never had to go inside except for art class. … our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.” (LB, 18.) Posthumously, Susie is able to indulge a taste for an architecture opposed to the suburbs' boxy functionalism. She inhabits a duplex and a gazebo and is surrounded by dogs. There are hints throughout that she may move on to a more rarefied empyrean, but that this too will be “cozy.” For some, Susie's “Great Good Place” lacks credibility.

Sebold's genre is “suburban gothic.”9 A product of the suburbs, the author marvels (in a discussion at her literary stock in trade: “Who would have thought that the place I most despised growing up—where I felt like the weirdest freak and biggest loser—would turn out to be a gift to me?”10 The kind of story that attracts Sebold is this:

My family was watching television when a couple—the mother and father to a woman who lived one street over … were hit by a car and landed on our front lawn. The man who hit them leapt out of his car and shouted to two boys … playing basketball … “These people need an ambulance.” He then proceeded to jump back in his car and drive three houses down, where he calmly parked in his own driveway and went inside his house. The daughter of the couple who had been hit … now came upon the scene. We heard screaming. … Both her parents were killed. One died on our lawn, the other died … in a hospital. And the man who struck them? He was both one of our neighbors and, by profession, a paramedic.11

The Lovely Bones testifies to the oddness and grotesquerie of suburbia. Other critics have compared Sebold to such authors as Aimée Bender and Alice MacDermott. For her suburban gothic strain she is comparable to the Sylvia Plath of The Bell Jar, who evokes the same incursions of terror into the blandest milieux and who would also glory in such a diabolic juxtaposition as “the Gilberts' dog found my elbow and brought it home with a telling corn husk attached to it.” (LB, 10) For her interest in regeneration, however, Sebold is comparable—not to her advantage—to contemporary British novelist Pat Barker. These two writers share a profound interest in the process of regeneration or healing, though Barker's is grittier and harder won. Still, one can agree with Kathleen Bouton that Sebold's novel transforms “the stuff of neighborhood tragedy” into literature.12 And one affirms Michiko Kakutani's assessment that The Lovely Bones is an “affecting meditation on the ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed … through love and acceptance.”13

Notes

  1. Alice Sebold, Lucky (New York: Scribner, 1999). All further references to this work are given as page numbers within the text.

  2. ———. The Lovely Bones (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2002). All further references to this work are given as page numbers within the text.

  3. David Weich, “The World Meets Alice Sebold.” July 22, 2002. Powells.com http://www.powells.com/authors/sebold.html

  4. “Imagining Death.” Aug. 1, 2002. Salon.com http://www.salon.com/books/review/2002/08/01/fiction

  5. Ehzra Cue, “An Evening of Fiction.” April 26, 2000.

  6. “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2002, p. 15.

  7. See reviews by McLellan in the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 15, 1999, and by Kakutani in the New York Times, June 18, 2002, late ed., sect. E, p. 1, col. 4.

  8. “Voice from Beyond.”

  9. Lev Grossman. Time 160, July 1, 2002, p. 62.

  10. “The Oddity of Suburbia—Alice Sebold in Her Own Words.”

  11. Ibid.

  12. “What Remains?” New York Times Book Review, cli, issue no. 52179, July 14, 2002, p. 14.

  13. “The Power of Love Leaps the Great Divide of Death,” New York Times, June 18, 2002, late ed., sect. E, p. 1, col. 4.

References

Bouton, Kathleen. “What Remains?” New York Times Book Review, cli, issue no. 52179, July 14, 2002, p. 14.

Buchsbaum, Tony. “Voice from Beyond.”

Charles, Ron. “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2002, p. 15.

Cue, Ehzra. “An Evening of Fiction.” April 26, 2000.

Darby, Ann. Interview with Alice Sebold. Publishers Weekly, 249, June 17, 2002, pp. 40-41.

Grossman, Lev. Time 160, July 1, 2002, p. 62.

Kakutani, Michiko. “The Power of Love Leaps the Great Divide of Death.” New York Times, June 18, 2002, late ed., sect. E, p. 1, col. 4.

McLellan, David. Los Angeles Times, Sept. 15, 1999.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Novel of the Year.” New York Review of Books, 50, no. 1, January 16, 2003.

Miller, Laura. Salon.com http://www.salon.com/books/review/2002/08/01/sebold/print.html See also “Imagining Death.”

“The Oddity of Suburbia—Alice Sebold in Her Own Words.” www/twbookmark.com/authorslounge/articles/2002/may/article_150960.html

Press, Joy. “Heaven Can't Wait.” Village Voice, June 14, 2002. See also http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0225/press.php

Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2002.

———. Lucky. New York: Scribner, 1999.

“Voice from Beyond.” www.januarymagazine.com/fiction/lovelybones/html

Weich, David, “The World Meets Alice Sebold.” July 22, 2002. Powells.com www.powells.com/authors/sebold.html

Kenneth Womack (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Womack, Kenneth. “‘My Name Was Salmon, Like the Fish’: Understanding Death, Grief, and Redemption in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism 193, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Womack uses the framework of family systems theory to examine acts of narrative therapy and the grieving process presented in The Lovely Bones.]

As with so many other works of contemporary fiction and film, Alice Sebold's bestselling novel The Lovely Bones (2002) fulfills our fundamental and...

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