The Lovely Bones enjoyed immediate popular success from the time of its publication. The novel, published in June 2002, topped the New York Times bestseller list that summer. Prior its publication, as Charlotte Abbot notes in Publishers Weekly, bestselling author Anna Quindlen told viewers of the Today Show, "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." For the most part, the novel garnered excellent reviews after its publications, with critics praising the first person omniscient point of view and the stunning opening pages.
In a review for Christian Century, Stephen H. Webb argues that Sebold's reworked point of view "is the only way to fully comprehend such an intolerable tragedy [the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl]." Writing for the London Review of Books, Rebecca Mead deems Susie "a bright and ironical observer," and Michiko Kakutani, in her front-page review of The Lovely Bones in the New York Times, points out that the narrator possesses a "matter-of-fact charm." Finally, in his review in the Christian Science Monitor, Ron Charles writes, "The power of The Lovely Bones flows from this voice, a voice at once charmingly adolescent and tragically mature." Most reviewers identify Susie's voice as one of the novel's strong points.
Critics also agree on another of the novel's strengths: the opening pages. Even unfavorable reviews praised Sebold's compelling opening. In Daniel Mendelsohn's review in the New York Review of Books, he likens the novel to TV movies of the week—artificial, contrived, and lightweight. However, Mendelsohn also writes, "The novel begins strikingly…. The few pages that follow … are the best in the book," and he praises the authenticity of these pages. Writing for the Guardian, Ali Smith slams The Lovely Bones for its timidity and sentimentality, but finds "the opening chapters … shattering and dazzling in their mix of horror and normality." Despite a handful of negative reviews, the novel has been the "breakout fiction debut of the year" that Lev Grossman predicted in the book section of the July 1, 2002, edition of Time magazine.
Sebold's novel does, however, exhibit some weaknesses, and even her most ardent admirers recognize them. Kakutani comments that Sebold stumbles in the "highly abstract musing on Susie belonging to a historical continuum of murdered girls and women," and this critic finds the scenes dealing with Susie's classmate, Ruth Connor's, "belief that she can … channel Susie's feelings" unconvincing. Other critics find troubling Susie's return to earth, which Sarah Churchwell of the Times Literary Supplement calls "a false move that violates the contract of willingly suspended disbelief."
Overall, critics believe that the novel's strengths outshine its weak moments. In her Washington Post review, Maria Russo considers The Lovely Bones "utterly original and deeply affecting," and she asserts that Sebold "manages to put her readers into contact with a throbbing pulse of life." Sebold, says Russo, "has an unusual flair for both owning and transforming dark material." Katherine Bouton of the New York Times Book Review concurs. Sebold, she writes, "deals with almost unthinkable subjects with humor and intelligence and a kind of mysterious grace."
The Lovely Bones ascended U.S. bestseller lists in the second half of 2002, and stayed on the lists until late 2003. The paperback version of the novel remained a bestseller for many months afterward, and to date more than five million have been sold in the United States. Several reviewers of The Lovely Bones prominently mentioned the broader cultural and religious atmosphere in which it appeared, and the implications of the basic scenario of the novel. The Christian Science Monitor noted that “it's no coincidence that the novel has been embraced during a period of high anxiety about child...
(The entire section is 1,070 words.)