illustration of Susie in the clouds with her charm bracelet above her head

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070

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."

Additional commentary:

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 abductions,” while Publishers Weekly added that it discusses “a grim, media-exploited subject.” Both of these reviewers, however, believed that Sebold’s novel transcends the sensationalistic and repetitive ways in which child rapes and kidnappings are treated by the media. The Monitor said it explored the “mechanics of rape and murder and grief in a way no news report ever could,” while Publisher Weekly said that Susie’s narrative is animated by the “reminder that life is sweet and funny and surprising” and by the “lithe, resilient prose that by itself delights.”

In commenting on the spiritual element of a novel primarily set in heaven, the Monitor noted that while spiritualism pervades The Lovely Bones, “none of the characters finds solace in anything as dusty as prayer or a sacred text. And as pleasant as Susie's heaven is, there's no God there, and certainly no Jesus. This is spirituality for an age that's ecumenical to a fault.”

The Boston Globe reiterated the Monitor’s praise of Susie’s both “charmingly adolescent and tragically mature” voice by noting that her common and petty teenage concerns help diminish the reader’s awareness of the brutality of her rape and murder. Indeed, the Globe said that Susie’s place in heaven not only compensates for the crimes committed against her, it lets her “live the universal fantasy of finding out what happens after she's gone.” The Globe’s review goes on to say that Sebold offers “an ode to the living as well as a requiem for the dead,” just as the Monitor had said that “this is as much a story about the dead as about the living.” And, indeed, USA Today declared that Sebold makes “readers feel what her characters feel—in life and death.”

Reviewers did not uniformly praise The Lovely Bones. The New York Times cited “a couple of faltering moments” in the novel, and USA Today added that it “builds a theologically challenging view of heaven, then abandons it for the supernatural.” Michiko Kakutani, writing a second New York Times review, said, “In the latter portions of the novel, Ms. Sebold's assured narration takes a few stumbles,” including some “portentous and highly abstract musings on Susie belonging to a historical continuum of murdered girls and women.” Nonetheless, a column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, written after the novel had become a bestseller, seemed to summarize the general critical response in saying that although it could have “used rigorous editing,” The Lovely Bones was “something so resonant and poignant about our humanity that I cannot get it out of my mind.”

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