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.
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.
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.
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.
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 having company. I was motivated to write about violence because I believe it's not unusual. I see it as just a part of life, and I think we get in trouble when we separate people who've experienced it from those who haven't. Though it's a horrible experience, it's not as if violence hasn't affected many of us.
The reader learns on the first page that your narrator, Susie Salmon, has been murdered. But how did you come to place her in heaven?
Chang Rae Lee says, “Competency kills.” Well, I was working on another, perfectly competent novel, but it didn't have any life to it. I read poetry all the time—poems free me—so I went off and read some poetry, and when I came back to my desk, I wrote the...
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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 their families survive the horror? How would we bear such a tragedy in our own households? They are questions to which we seldom find answers, turning back ultimately, gratefully, to our happier-by-comparison lives.
Alice Sebold, however, boldly steps into that unimaginable territory in her first novel, The Lovely Bones. Sebold's guide on the journey is 14-year-old Susie Salmon—“like the fish”—who tells us she was murdered in 1973, “before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons … back when people believed things like that didn't happen.”
Susie narrates from her own personal heaven, an in-between place where “life is a perpetual yesterday,” where she gets a...
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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 neighbor on a snowy day. He stuffs her hat into her mouth. They both hear her mother calling her for dinner. He rapes her, cuts her throat, and then dismembers the body. It's the most terrifying scene I've ever read.
For the next seven years, she describes how her family and friends—and even her murderer—cope with her absence. She's in heaven, so she can see everything from up there. It sounds mawkish, like a ghastly version of Beloved for white suburbia, but Alice Sebold has done something miraculous here.
It's no coincidence that the novel has been embraced during a period of high anxiety about child abductions—perhaps the only dread darker than our new fear of terrorism.
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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 Cold Mountain, only to dismiss those examples in the same breath, because they took off much more slowly.
The book hit #1 on Amazon.com six weeks before its publication date, immediately after Anna Quindlen appeared on the Today Show for a summer reading roundup on May 22 and said. “If you read one book this summer, it should be The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It's destined to be a classic along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it's one of the best books I've read in years.” Ten days later, New York Times book critic Janet Maslin fanned the flames by touting it on CBS Sunday Morning, while Seventeen magazine ran a first serial in the July issue. Sealing the...
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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 as it sounds. It is also grimly captivating. “I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973,” Susie Salmon coolly introduces herself.
Sebold is as unsparing in the grisly details—a discarded elbow, bloodstains and saliva—as she is on the schmaltz. And as a meditation on the afterlife, the novel is spectrally fuzzy. Replete with swing sets and glossy magazines, Susie's heaven is an individual paradise, where the air is scented with skunk and kumquats and all her dreams on earth come true. In true Seventies style, Susie is greeted not by a stern St Peter, but by a female “intake counsellor”, an ex-social worker. More traditionally, her heaven is a favourite haunt of dead pets and grandparents—and, in Susie's...
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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 Lovely Bones concerns effects, not causes. Susie must learn the same lessons about loss as her family: as they become reconciled to losing her, she must become reconciled to losing them—and herself. “Heaven wasn't perfect”, Susie observes, deadpan, on being informed that she will be denied what she most wants, the chance to grow up. But that is exactly what Susie will do, over the course of this unusual, often touching novel: the death of a precocious, witty, but essentially ordinary child proves in Sebold's hands a metaphor for the death of childhood itself.
Susie's death is a travesty of the fall from innocence into experience—sexual, cruel and, in her case, fatal. In her superb first chapter, Sebold...
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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, exquisitely crafted, original, and deeply moving. Sebold, author of a memoir of her own horrific rape (Lucky), draws us powerfully into Susie's world as she watches her family—father, mother, younger sister and brother—and friends disintegrate, then reconstitute themselves as the wound of her unsolved death slowly heals over. Full of humor and warmth, The Lovely Bones resonates with hope, family dynamics, and life. Sebold's eye for detail and the telling moment (a feeling, a look, a subtle gesture) is nearly perfect, and this novel is a joy to read.
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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 perfection, and the tension between the two is almost unbearable. Remarkably, when the reader is done, it seems obvious that, far from being a contrived resurrection of the old-fashioned omniscient-narrator point of view, this unique perspective is the only way to fully comprehend such an intolerable tragedy.
The Lovely Bones is Alice Sebold's first novel, but not her first attempt to turn pain into poetry. Her first book, ironically titled Lucky, is a memoir about her experience of being raped at the age of 18. The police told her that she was lucky she wasn't murdered, but she is also lucky to be blessed with a literary voice that is as precise as it is profound. This pair of books—one a careful documentation...
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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 transparent. The book concerns a crime that could not be more horrible, the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl; but its tone is joyful, its message comforting, and its metaphysics unimpeachable in a culture which prides itself on its piety while adhering to an incoherent gospel of personal growth.
The protagonist of The Lovely Bones is a girl called Susie Salmon, who, we learn in the second line of the book, was murdered on 6 December 1973, ‘back when people believed things like that didn't happen’. The murderer is Mr Harvey, a loner neighbour who discusses fertilisers with Susie's father and whose border flowers draw the admiration of her mother. Mr Harvey has left a trail of dead girls behind him as he moves from...
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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 tell them we love them, to resolve things left unresolved.” One suspects the wild success of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones mines the same cavern of unrequited longing in our oh-so-secular and cynical culture. In the midst of our high tech savvy and soft core luxuries we still seem to crave a design, a somewhat less divine sort of plan than the one advanced by fanatics but somewhat more spiritual than the usual, devoid-of-mystery allowed for by the debunking sciences.
The latest reports claim a million copies in print: the three library systems I checked each listed well over a hundred holds. Copies of Alice Sebold's first book, 1999's memoir Lucky cannot be had for love nor money. As one narrative has a...
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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.]
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 declared that if people had one book to read during the summer, “it should be The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It's destined to be a classic along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it's one of the best books I've read in years.” Viewers did what they were told and seemed to agree. Within days of Quindlen's appearance, Sebold's novel had reached the number-one position on Amazon.com, and her publisher, Little, Brown, decided to increase the size of the first printing from 35,000—already healthily optimistic for a “literary” first novel by an author whose only other book, a memoir of her rape, was a critical but not commercial success—to 50,000 copies; a week before the book's official publication date, it was...
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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 obvious literary predecessor is Thornton Wilder's Our Town, in which the deceased Emily is granted omniscient knowledge of family, friends and community after her death; a subtly orchestrated wish-fulfilment fantasy that allows audiences to weep, and at the same time feel good about weeping. Not the deep counterminings of tragic adult literature here, which suggests that death is not only painful but permanent, and that we are not likely to hover above our families as they mourn us, but a fantasy in which an event of surpassing horror (a fourteen-year-old girl raped, murdered, dismembered by a neighbour who is never apprehended for the crime) is very sketchily narrated in the first chapter, to provide background for a story of mourning,...
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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 best rape witness’ he had ever seen. A year later her student house was broken into and her best friend raped. Sebold's celebrity as a successful rape victim was in the end too much for her room-mate, who cut loose from the friendship when she decided not to proceed with a prosecution.
Lucky is Sebold's memoir of her ordeal. It is a precise and unforgiving book, which charts the mainly inadequate responses of family and friends to the rape, as well as praising those who gave her permission to rage and to hate. In a postscript she sketches her private descent into drink and drugs after dropping out of graduate school. Outwardly her life continued on a successful track: she held down teaching jobs, published...
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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 of being sentimental, which some feel accounts for its success. It does have several happy endings: the serial killer falls down a ravine in freezing ice and snow and dies; the adulterous mother who has left the home, unable to bear the burden of her murdered child, returns; the child's sister makes a happy marriage; and the father recovers from a near-fatal heart attack and falls in love with the mother a second time. The mother and father are treated with extraordinary empathy. There are also resting places in the novel: descriptions of friendships, classmates, teachers, landscapes, weather, and “my heaven”, the cognitive world of the murdered child. For those who like feminism straight-up, there is a character who, through her...
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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
Alice Sebold, Lucky (New York: Scribner, 1999). All further references to this work are given as page numbers within the text.
———. The Lovely Bones (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2002). All further references to this work are given as page numbers within the text.
David Weich, “The World Meets Alice Sebold.” July 22, 2002. Powells.com http://www.powells.com/authors/sebold.html
“Imagining Death.” Aug. 1, 2002. Salon.com http://www.salon.com/books/review/2002/08/01/fiction
Ehzra Cue, “An Evening of Fiction.” April 26, 2000.
“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2002, p. 15.
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.
“Voice from Beyond.”
Lev Grossman. Time 160, July 1, 2002, p. 62.
“The Oddity of Suburbia—Alice Sebold in Her Own Words.”
“What Remains?” New York Times Book Review, cli, issue no. 52179, July 14, 2002, p. 14.
“The Power of Love Leaps the Great Divide of Death,” New York Times, June 18, 2002, late ed., sect. E, p. 1, col. 4.
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
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 indelibly human desires for establishing vital interconnections with the lost friends and loved ones who adorn our personal pasts. Their deaths leave unspeakable voids in our lives that the progress of time and the erosion of memory render ever more vexing and inconsolable with each passing day. Time and time again, the most cherished works of our literary and popular culture reflect this abiding need to seek out our lost siblings, parents, and grandparents. Like the fictive characters in such dramatic and cinematic fare as Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future series (1985-1990) and Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), we long for the opportunity to wade back into the...
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Benson, Heidi. “Feeling the Horror in her Bones; Sebold Gives a Voice to Missing Girls.” San Francisco Chronicle (23 July 2002): D1.
Benson discusses the commercial success of The Lovely Bones and details the novel's origins.
Clarson, Jennifer. “A Dream Finally Realized.” Book (July/August 2002): 64-5.
Clarson details Sebold's literary goals and personal idiosyncrasies.
DeLint, Charles. Review of The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Fantasy & Science Fiction 104, no. 2 (February 2003): 29-30.
DeLint defends The Lovely Bones's popular appeal, considering it a superlative example of fantastical literature.
Grenier, Cynthia. “Novel Gods: A Pair of Bestsellers Roll Their Own Religion.” Weekly Standard 9, no. 2 (22 September 2003): 32-4.
Grenier compares The Lovely Bones to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, another bestseller, commenting on the absence of God in both novels.
Hensher, Philip. “An Eternity of Sweet Nothings.” Observer (11 August 2002): 16.
Hensher criticizes The Lovely Bones, claiming that, despite its readability, the novel is overly cute and mawkish.
Kakutani, Michiko. “The Power of Love Leaps the...
(The entire section is 316 words.)