(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.