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

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

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Catherine Cucinella

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Catherine Cucinella, a freelance writer, has edited a reference volume on contemporary American poets and has published articles on poetry and film. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside. In this essay, Cucinella analyzes the effects of domestic ideologies on the mother-daughter relationships in The Lovely Bones.

Although The Lovely Bones has garnered many reviews, critical work on the novel proves scarce. Most reviewers and critics comment on Sebold's innovative use of point of view, the omniscient first person narrator, Susie Salmon. These same critics point to Sebold's mastery in presenting a disturbing subject—the rape and murder of a young girl. More often than not, however, the unsettling elements in the text involve issues of motherhood and mothering. Through her depiction of mothers and daughters, Sebold examines the effects of patriarchy and domesticity on women. The Lovely Bones questions the roles and demands placed on women by society as it presents the consequences that arise for mothers and daughters if these roles and demands remain unexamined.

Sebold examines the dictates of patriarchy, the social system in which the father is the head of the family and men govern women and children; and domesticity, the devotion to home life. This examination of the place of women unfolds primarily through the first person omniscient narration, characterization, and through the motif (recurring images in a literary work) of confined spaces. Although the restrictive systems under which each woman must live come to light in The Lovely Bones, the novel makes clear that recognizing these restrictions begins the process of loosening them.

Susie's omniscient perspective affords the reader the opportunity to watch as the Salmon women work through that process. From her heaven, Susie provides insight into the internal thoughts of all the characters. Susie's insights work within the narrative itself, offering Susie the opportunity to experience the move from girlhood to womanhood. Significantly, the internal musings to which Susie is privy involve her mother's struggle with feelings of discontent, a discontent that feminist Betty Friedan labeled "the feminine mystique." According to Friedan, "a strange discrepancy [exists] between the reality of [women's] lives as women and the image to which [women are] trying to conform." Abigail Salmon, Susie's mother, provides the clearest example of this "schizophrenic split" and its consequences.

On the morning of her eleventh birthday, Susie, awake before the rest of the family, discovers her unwrapped birthday present, an Instamatic camera. Eager to use it she, she hurries to the back of the house and finds the back door open. There in the backyard, Susie comes upon her mother, unaware of her daughter's presence. Susie narrates:

I had never seen her sitting so still, so not there somehow…. That morning there were no lipstick marks because there was no lipstick until she put it on for … who? I had never thought to ask that question. My father? Us?

Because Susie retells this incident from her heavenly vantage point, she can now read significance into it. Her status as omniscient first person narrator allows her insight that she may or may not have possessed when the incident first occurred. After all, Susie's narration unfolds after all events have taken place. Significantly, however, Susie makes clear the split between the private, unencumbered Abigail and the woman who assumes a face for the world.

Susie's camera captures this moment, and the picture glaringly reveals the split to which Freidan refers:

When the roll came back from the Kodak plant … I could see the difference immediately. There was only one picture in which my mother was Abigail. It was that first one, the one taken of her unawares, the one captured before the click startled her into the mother of the birthday girl, owner of the happy dog, wife to a loving man, and mother again to another girl and a cherished boy. Homemaker. Gardner. Sunny neighbor.

Thus, Susie catches her mother in the moment before Abigail conforms to an image. This passage further delineates the roles expected of women as it makes clear that Abigail held part of herself apart from those roles.

As the narrative progresses, Susie watches and narrates her mother's struggle to reconcile the need for autonomy with the demands of motherhood and wifehood. Susie's murder initiates much of Abigail's unrest. Her grief and unacknowledged guilt over her daughter's death seem to suffocate Abigail, causing her to withdraw from her husband and children. However, this feeling of confinement predates the murder. As a young wife and new mother, Abigail saw the withering of her dreams: "the stack of books on [the] beside table changed from catalogs for local colleges, encyclopedias of mythology, novels by James, Eliot, and Dickens, to the works of Dr. Spock." The birth of her third child, Buckley, pushes Abigail further away from the woman who earned a master's degree in literature, who read philosophy, and who aspired to teach at the college level. She found that she could not "have it all;" she could not even remain in love with her husband. Susie observes poignantly that her parents "had been deeply, separately, wholly in love—apart from her children [her] mother could reclaim this love, but with them she began to drift."

The narrative time in The Lovely Bones spans the 1970s; however, Abigail herself came of age in earlier decades, and she took on the role of new wife and mother in the late 1950s. Therefore, she carries within herself the constrictions of 1950s domestic ideology, an ideology that, according to Nancy Woloch in Women and the American Experience, "posited fulfillment within the family as a goal to which women of all classes and backgrounds might aspire." In addition, the rise of the suburbs extended the demands of domesticity, an extension clearly visible in The Lovely Bones. Woloch explains, "The domestic passion of the 1950s coincided with a massive exodus to the suburbs, the ideal place for raising families," and federal policies such as low-interest mortgages and veteran benefits, as well as federally funded programs for highway construction, contributed to the suburban growth. These polices, according to Woloch, "promoted domestic ideals, since suburban life, for women, meant commitment to home and family, to house care and child care." In addition, advertising throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s further promoted a domestic ideology. The message: domesticity equals happiness and contentment. However, as Abigail demonstrates and Freidan's study confirms, not all women enjoyed these feelings. Instead, this domesticity pushed them into spaces of confinement and restriction.

Abigail, then, fails to embrace the dictates of domestic ideology. Even before Susie's murder, she grows distant from her children, and after the murder, she distances herself physically, as well as emotionally, from her family: avoiding Jack; eating macaroons in a downstairs bathroom hidden away from Jack, Lindsey, and Buckley; having an affair with Len Fenerman, the lead detective on Susie's case; and finally, leaving the family. However, for Abigail, the repressive aspects of 1950s and 1960s domesticity combine with the changing position of women in the 1970s—changes brought about by second wave feminism—and with the overwhelming grief and guilt attached to Susie's death. This grief proves just as stifling to Abigail as does her wifehood and motherhood. In California, whenever Abigail "walked inside a gift shop or café the four walls around her would begin to breathe like a lung. She would feel it then, creeping up the sides of her calves and into her gut, the onslaught, the grief coming." The image of the shop breathing like a lung evokes earlier images of confinement in The Lovely Bones: the hole in the cornfield where Mr. Harvey rapes and murders Susie, the small hospital balcony where Abigail and Len first kiss, the fort where Buckley shuts himself off from the world, the closet like room in which Ruth Connors lives, the narrow hospital bed in which Abigail and Jack finally cry about Susie. The spaces of confinement that Abigail inhabits simultaneously restrict her and free her. In these places, she confronts her discontent and disappointment, in them she identifies her oppressions and weakness, and within these small spaces, she often comes to understandings. The two most significant instances of resolution occur in an airplane and in a hospital room. Susie listens to her mother's thoughts as she flies to Pennsylvania after Jack's heart attack,

[s]he could not help but think of how, if she were a mother traveling, there would be two seats filled beside her. One for Lindsey. One for Buckley. But though she was, by definition, a mother, she had at some point ceased to be one too. She couldn't claim that right and privilege after missing more than half a decade of their lives. She now knew that being a mother was a calling, something plenty of young girls had dreamed of being. But my mother had never had that dream, and she had been punished in the most horrible and unimaginable way for never having wanted me.

In order for Abigail to reunite with her family, she must honestly confront her feelings about motherhood, and she must come to realize that she can love her children, living and dead, without sacrificing herself. Maternal love, in and of itself, does not demand the elimination of a woman's sense of self. As Sebold makes clear in The Lovely Bones, domesticity as constructed within patriarchy makes this demand.

Abigail occupies the positions of both mother and daughter, and just as she must work through her feelings about her own mothering, she must also confront the way she was mothered. Like her daughters, Abigail felt closer to her father than to her mother, Grandma Lynn. Lynn and Abigail, though in many ways polar opposites—Lynn flamboyant and frivolous, Abigail vulnerable and serious—exhibit the same ambivalence toward motherhood. Susie provides insight into her mother and grandmother's relationship:

Grandma Lynn embarrassed my mother by insisting on wearing her used furs on walks around the block and by once attending a block party in high makeup. She would ask my mother questions until she knew who everyone was, whether or not my mother had seen the inside of their house, what the husband did for a living, what cars they drove. She made a solid catalog of the neighbors. It was a way, I now realized, to try to understand her daughter better. A misguided circling, a sad, partnerless dance.

Much later, after Susie's death, after her almost ten-year absence from the family, after her return to Pennsylvania, Abigail accepts Lynn as Lynn: "[Abigail] was beginning to wonder how useful her scorched-earth policy had been to her all these years. Her mother was loving if she was drunk, solid if she was vain." This thought process and the realization to which it leads upend the dictates of an idealized motherhood, one generating from the limitations of a domestic ideology constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Lynn, however, possesses little of the accepted maternal attributes. Her cooking skills run to frozen dinners, and she breezes in and out of her grandchildren's lives, staying long enough only to upset routines. However, after Susie's death, she comes to understand her daughter's needs much more clearly. In a rare mother-daughter moment, Abigail confesses to Lynn the terrible loneliness she felt as a child, and Lynn realizes that Susie's death took Abigail "inside the middle of a ground zero to which" nothing in the older woman's experience "could offer her insight." This realization provides the first glimmer of connection between mother and daughter. When Abigail leaves the family, Lynn moves in and assumes the maternal role. This assumption, similar to Abigail's eventual return, succeeds because Lynn assumes the maternal role by choice, not because society demands that she does so. Unlike her earlier experience as mother, Lynn understands her motivations; thus she can mother Lindsey and Buckley without risk to her own position as an eccentric and independent woman.

Just as Abigail, by understanding her feelings about her own mother, herself as mother, and motherhood in general, can take her place within the family, Susie comes to understand the connection that she shared with her mother in life. By seeing her mother's internal conflicts and watching Abigail seek ways to erase her loneliness, disappointments, grief, and guilt, Susie realizes that she wants and needs her mother. She "hears" her mother calling her for dinner as Mr. Harvey rapes her; she repeatedly describes her mother's "ocean eyes;" she recalls her mother's stories; she names her mother's loneliness and need. Referring to Franny, her intake counselor in heaven, Susie says, "Franny was old enough to be our mother—mid-forties—and it took Holly and me a while to figure out that this had been something we wanted: our mothers." Letting go of the living and accepting herself as dead emerges as Susie's major quest throughout the story; however, the need to accept her mother for who she was proves another significant task for Susie.

The reconciliation between Susie's parents makes clear the nature of acceptance. Reconciliation depends upon an unconditional acceptance. In the hospital after his heart attack, Jack wakes in the early morning hours to find Abigail sleeping, her hand in his. Susie's omniscient position reveals her father's thoughts: "She was here, and this time, despite all, he was going to let her be who she was." Susie comes to this acceptance along with her father. Watching Abigail's flight from and return home, Susie learns to see her relationship with her mother from outside the confining parameters of socially mandated motherhood. When Abigail can finally say aloud, "I love you, Susie," Susie acknowledges, "I had heard these words so many times from my father that it shocked me now; I had been waiting, unknowingly, to hear it from my mother." Susie continues, "She had needed the time to know that this love would not destroy her, and I had, I now knew, given her that time."

Susie's sister, Lindsey, inhabits the middle ground in these mother-daughter configurations. Susie's death moves Lindsey from middle child and younger daughter to older child and only living daughter. Gradually, she also moves into the position vacated by her mother. In the chaos that ensues when Jack is rushed to the hospital after being beaten in the cornfield, Abigail sees Buckley turn to his sister rather than to his mother. The maternal role falls on Lindsey. Susie observes, "My sister felt more alone than she had ever been but also more responsible. Buckley couldn't be left by himself," and after her mother leaves, Lindsey's maternal role expands.

However, unlike her mother, Lindsey does not push aside her own aspirations for family. Admittedly, Lindsey is not Buckley's mother, but that fact does not lessen the responsibility that Lindsey bears. Whereas Abigail illustrates 1950s and 60s domestic ideology, Lindsey embodies the promises of 1970s feminism. Bright and ambitious, she takes an active role in both her home and in the investigation of her sister's murder. When the police fail to find evidence linking Mr. Harvey to the crime, Lindsey breaks into his house and steals drawings that he made of the underground room where he killed Susie. Lindsey participates in gifted symposiums, graduates from Temple University, earns a master's degree in counseling, and starts a career with that degree. She also marries her high school sweetheart, Samuel.

Lindsey accomplishes most of these things during her mother's absence, an absence that Lindsey saw coming. On the first anniversary of Susie's death, Lindsey asks her mother, "Are you going to leave us?" As Susie narrates, "'Come here baby,' my mother said, and Lindsey did. She leaned back into my mother's chest, and my mother rocked her awkwardly on the rug. 'You are doing so well, Lindsey; you are keeping your father alive."' Lindsey does not have the benefit of Susie's all-encompassing perspective; Lindsey does not know her mother's thoughts, but she does understand that her mother will not stay, and somehow, Lindsey seems to accept her mother's need to go. When Abigail returns, Lindsey poses yet another question. Referring to Buckley, she asks, "Are you going to hurt him again?" Abigail hears a challenge in the question, a challenge glaring from her daughter's eyes. "I know what you did," Lindsey tells her mother. This mother-daughter relationship, Abigail and Lindsey, perhaps the most tenuous of all those depicted in the book, manifests as the most honest. Lindsey has always accepted Abigail for who she was, and she seems able to accept their relationship for what it is—desiring nothing more.

The Lovely Bones holds motherhood, along with mothers and daughters, up to scrutiny, and in the end the narrative offers a new understanding of those bonds by demonstrating the importance of examining the ideologies behind them. The novel reinforces the connection of generations through women with the closing image of a strong and confident young mother, Lindsey, with her daughter, Abigail Suzanne.

Source: Catherine Cucinella, Critical Essay on The Lovely Bones, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Daniel Mendelsohn

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In the following excerpt, Mendelsohn argues that the general failure to recognize the book's weaknesses says something about the cultural climate in which it was first published.

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 of 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, 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 in its sixth printing, with nearly a quarter-million copies in print.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly at the end of July, when the true extent of the book's success was just coming into focus, Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, suggested that thebook's appeal lies in its fearless and ultimately redemptive portrayal of "dark material": "grief, the most horrible thing that can happen in alife."

And yet darkness, grief, and heartbreak is what The Lovely Bones scrupulously avoids. This is the real heart of its appeal.

Sebold's decision to have the dead girl narrate her story—a device familiar from Our Town, a sentimental story with which this one has more than a little in common—suggests an admirable desire to confront murder and violence, grief and guilt in a bold, even raw new way. And yet after its attention-getting opening, The Lovely Bones shows little real interest in examining ugly things. Indeed, the ultimate horror that Susie undergoes is one for which the author has no words, and chooses not to represent. In the first of what turns out to be many evasive gestures, the author tastefully avoids the murder itself, to say nothing of the dismemberment. "The end came anyway," she writes, and there is a discreet dissolve to the next chapter.

I use the word "dissolve" advisedly: it is hard to read what follows in The Lovely Bones without thinking of cinema—or, perhaps better, of those TV "movies of the week," with their predictable arcs of crisis, healing, and "closure," the latter inevitably evoked by an obvious symbolism.

Equally soft-focus are the novel's sketchy attempts to confront the face of evil that Susie, and Susie alone of all these characters, has looked on directly: the killer himself, Mr. Harvey. Sebold perfunctorily provides some sketchy information that never quite adds up to a persuasive portrait of a sociopath. Harvey's father abused and eventually chased away his wild, rebellious mother, whom the boy sees for the last time, dressed in white capri pants, being pushed out of a car in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He sometimes kills animals as a means of avoiding homicide. And Sebold grapples with punish ment—with, that is, the moral meaning and consequences of the crime at the heart of her book—as weakly as she does with the crime itself. At the end of the novel, in what is apparently meant to be a high irony, Harvey, who has managed for years to elude Susie's increasingly suspicious family and the police, is killed accidentally: as he stands at the edge of a ravine, plotting to attack yet another girl one winter day, he falls when an icicle drops onto him.

So having the murder victim be the protagonist offers no special view of evil, or guilt. I asked myself, as I read The Lovely Bones, what could be the point of having the dead girl narrate the aftermath of herdeath—what, in other words, this voice could achieve that a standard omniscient narrator couldn't—and it occurred to me that the answer is that Susie is there to provide comfort: not to those who survive her, to whom she can't really make herself known or felt, but to the audience. The real point of Sebold's novel isn't to make you confront dreadful things, but, if anything, to assure you that they have no really permanent consequences. This is most evident in theauthor's vision of the "healing process" that takes place after the murder, a process that furnishes the book with the bulk of its matter. Susie herself must undergo it, we learn: she has to be weaned of her desire to linger in the world and "change the lives of those I loved on Earth"in order to progress from "her" heaven to Heaven itself. (The cosmology is vague—more shades of Our Town here—but that's the gist of it.) But The Lovely Bones is devoted even more to the aftermath (which is to say healing and closure) of her death as it is experienced by her friends and family.

That a novel with the pretensions to moral, emotional, and social seriousness of this one should end up seeking, and finding, the ultimate salvation and redemption in a recuperative teenage fantasy of idyllic sex suggests that cinema, or television, is the wrong thing to be comparing it to. Sebold's final narrative gesture reminds you, indeed, of nothing so much as pop love songs, with their aromatherapeutic vision of adult relationships as nothing but yearnings endlessly, blissfully fulfilled—or of breakups inevitably smoothed over and healed with a kiss. Just after Ray and Susie/Ruth make love, Susie's estranged parents are reunited on her father's hospital bed, weeping and kissing each other.

That Sebold's book does so little to show us a complex or textured portrait of the evil that sets its action in motion, or to suggest that the aftermath of horrible violence within families is, ultimately, anything but feel-good redemption, suggests that its huge popularity has very little, in fact, to do with the timeliness of its publication just months after a series of abductions and murders of girls had transfixed a nation already traumatized by the events of September 11. It is, rather, the latter catastrophe that surely accounts for thenovel's gigantic appeal.

Confidence and grief management are what The Lovely Bones offers, too: it, too, is bent on convincing us that everything is OK—whatever, indeed, its author and promoters keep telling us about how unflinchingly it examines bad things. "We're here," Susie's ghost says, in the final pages of the novel."All the time. You can talk to us and think about us. It doesn't have to be sad or scary." The problem, of course, is that it does have to be sad and scary; that you need to experience the badness and fear—as Sebold's characters, none more than Susie herself, never quite manage to do—in order to get to the place that Sebold wants to take you, the locus of healing, and closure: in short, Heaven. And yet what a Heaven it is. In the weeks following September 11, there was much dark jocularity at the expense of those Islamic terrorists who, it was said, had volunteered to die in order to enjoy the postmortem favors of numerous virgins in Paradise. But how much more sophisticated, or morally textured, is Sebold's climactic vision of Heaven, or indeed of death, as the place, or state, that allows you to indulge a recuperative fantasy or great sex?

That for Sebold and her readers Heaven can't, in fact, wait is symptomatic of a larger cultural dysfunction, one implicit in our ongoing handling of the September 11 disaster. The Lovely Bones appeared just as the first anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was looming; but by then, we'd already commemorated the terrible day. September 11, 2002—the first anniversary of the attacks, a day that ought to have marked (as is supposed to be the case with such anniversary rituals)some symbolic coming to terms with what had happened—was not a date for which the American people and its press could patiently wait. Instead we rushed to celebrate, with all due pomp and gravitas, on March 11, something called a six-month "anniversary." In its proleptic yearning for relief, and indeed in its emphasis on the bathetic appeal of victim hood, its pseudo-therapeutic lingo of healing and insistence that everything is really OK, that we needn't really be sad, that nothing is, in the end, really scary, Sebold's book is indeed timely—isindeed "the novel of the year"—although in ways that none of those now caught up in the glamour of its unprecedentedly high approval ratings might be prepared to imagine.

Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, "Novel of the Year," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 50,No. 1, January 16, 2003, pp. 4-8.

Beth Blair

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In this essay, Beth Blair argues that omniscient narration gives a glimpse into the minds of characters and, thus, a unique perspective on how individuals cope with grief and loss.

In The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold uses the omniscient narration of her main character, Susie Salmon, to explore both the living’s response to the death of a family member and the dead’s response to the same tragedy. Susie observes her family from heaven after her brutal rape and murder. Sebold’s use of omniscient narration through Susie as she observes her family allows Susie herself to become the leading character in the novel, and to be affected by the aftermath of her own death.

Each of Susie’s family members experiences the aftermath of her initial disappearance and, later, her confirmed murder differently. As Michiko Kakutani summarizes in her New York Times review of the novel, “For the members of Susie's family and their neighbors in a small suburban development, her murder rumbles through their lives like an avalanche: for some, it moves with breathtaking violence and speed, shattering old notions of safety and faith; for others, it moves in slow motion, catching them when they least expect it and tipping them off balance.” Susie’s mother, Abigail, avoids dealing with the reality of the loss and is incapable of acknowledging her surviving family and her maternal role. Susie’s father, Jack, is so overwhelmed with guilt and helplessness that he allows the unknown aspects of his daughter’s murder to take over his thoughts and render him incapable of nurturing or providing parental guidance to his surviving children. Susie’s sister, Lindsey, is able to wade through the initial horror of her sister’s murder and slowly move on with her life while serving as a surrogate parent for her brother, Buckley, who is too young to comprehend the tragedy. All of these reactions are observed and narrated by Susie, from her perch in heaven. During Susie’s narration, she advances through her own stages of grief and recovery. Mourning the loss of her family and friends, Susie vicariously experiences happiness through her sister, as Lindsey undergoes the stages of adolescence that Susie will never herself have the opportunity to experience.

Before Susie’s death is confirmed, Abigail Salmon responds to her daughter’s disappearance with denial that the loss is permanent. Abigail repeatedly appeals to the false hope provided by the stock response of the police that “anything is possible” whenever other family members insinuate that Susie’s absence is permanent. Once the confirmation of Susie’s death and probable murder is received, Abigail avoids motherly interactions with her family and recedes into a daydream world consisting of memories of herself as a young college student with big plans to move to a foreign country and study feminist literature. In the shadow of her daughter’s brutal death, Abigail sees herself as a victim of her own failure to follow her dreams, and she spends a considerable amount of time contemplating what her life would have been like without her children and husband—and the present tragedy. Abigail eventually has an affair with a police officer and then moves away from her family in an attempt to avoid having to confront the reality of losing a child. This escapism via emotional and physical removal from the surviving members of her family renders Abigail helpless to confront her daughter’s death and move forward in her life.

Upon the realization that his daughter has been murdered, Jack Salmon experiences a sense of helplessness at the knowledge that he was not there at the time of his daughter’s murder, when she needed help. This helplessness, coupled with the mystery surrounding his daughter’s death, takes over and precludes all thoughts concerning Jack’s living children and his wife. When Jack allows himself the realization that his wife and remaining children are very much alive and need his affection and attention, he is immediately afflicted by his own comparison between his relationships with them and what his relationship with his dead daughter might have been. Jack is incapable of interacting with his young son, Buckley, without feeling that he is in some way betraying the daughter with whom he can no longer interact. Jack also feels guilty for being unable to avoid thinking about how Lindsey reminds him of Susie. As he observes Lindsey’s development from adolescence to maturity, Jack recognizes that his dead daughter will never experience similar growth. His feelings of despair continue to drive him away from his family until the one-year anniversary of Susie’s death, when he attends an impromptu memorial for his daughter. At the memorial, Jack realizes that Susie’s memory is alive in the community of people around him, including his family. This realization empowers Jack and helps him slowly reintegrate himself back into the lives of his living children, who have already begun their own recovery from the loss and grief associated with their sister’s death.

The death of her older sister propels Lindsey Salmon into a guarded state of existence. The initial shock of finding out that Susie was murdered results in Lindsey’s withdrawal from her friends, classmates, and teachers. This withdrawal happens in part because Lindsey feels constrained by the natural tendency of everyone, including her family, to compare her to her dead sister. As Susie observes from heaven, “When people looked at Lindsey, even my father and mother, they saw me. Even Lindsey was not immune. She avoided mirrors. She now took showers in the dark.” Lindsey quickly realizes that the strain experienced by her parents over her sister’s death has changed the dynamic of the family, and she demands that her family allow her to deal with the death of her sister alone. Neither Abigail nor Jack is capable of escaping their own emotional despair enough to provide comfort to her or adequately help her younger brother, Buckley, understand why Susie is not at home. Lindsey increasingly hardens herself to the sympathy offered by strangers and independently finds her own way of coping with the loss of her sister. As Lindsey slowly regains her life, she allows herself to experience the growth typical of adolescent girls. This growth includes experiencing her first kiss with her first boyfriend, going away to summer camp, and losing her virginity. The momentous occasion of having her first kiss goes unnoticed by Jack and Abigail, who have abandoned their roles as nurturing parents. Lindsey responds to this abandonment by unconsciously taking on a maternal role for her brother. She continues to evolve into her own person throughout the novel—for example, we see her going to college and becoming engaged—and does so while avoiding the pressure to flail into despair.

As her family responds to her death, Susie Salmon observes everything from her place in heaven. Initially, she experiences an intense desire to interfere with the lives of her parents and sister as she witnesses their downward spiral into despair and grief. This desire is intensified by the futility inherent in her position on a heavenly perch. Upon Susie’s arrival in heaven, an intake worker helps her acclimate to her new surroundings and provides her with advice concerning the attachment of the dead to the living. Although Susie desires to observe every moment in her family members’ lives, the aide insists that Susie must also allow herself time to move away from her attachment to the living and find a way to accept her status as a dead person. This advice enables Susie to slowly evolve as she realizes that the lives of her family members must be allowed to continue without constant reminders of her brutal death. The growth experienced by the living does not mean that her memory is lost, but rather that those for whom she cares most are healing and moving forward in life. Once she makes this important realization, Susie is able vicariously to enjoy the experiences had by her sister, Lindsey, as she makes her way through adolescence into young adulthood.

Although Susie is frustrated by her murder, she avoids feeling rage toward her murderer, and instead observes his behavior with genuine curiosity. By shunning rage, Susie avoids the consumption by despair that her family experiences after her death. Through the omniscient narration provided by Susie from heaven, Sebold is able to provide readers with examples of how people cope with tragedy. The unique viewpoint offered by Susie’s narration gives the novel depth and provides a context through which each character’s suffering and recovery is made available to readers of the story.

Source: Beth Blair, “A Dead Protagonist? Omniscient Narration in The Lovely Bones,” an essay for, 2005. Beth Blair is a freelance writer and artist based in Seattle.

Lara Ramsey

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In this essay, Lara Ramsey argues that The Lovely Bones redefines the classic coming-of-age story, whereas growth and change occur throughout life and death, not simply from childhood to adulthood.

Set in 1970s suburbia, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones tells the story of fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon’s abduction, rape, and murder. Uniquely, past and present events surrounding Susie’s death are narrated by Susie herself, as she sits watching Earth from a gazebo in heaven. Although this approach may seem an odd choice, Susie’s omnipresent, omniscient first-person narration endows The Lovely Bones with a great power: readers gain intimate insight into not only Susie’s perceptions, but also the interior lives and histories of family, friends, community members, and even Susie’s deranged killer. Arriving on bookshelves during a period of high-profile child abductions, and amid the ongoing fight against violence toward women and children, The Lovely Bones is an important text in that it boldly brings these difficult issues to light.

While some critics, such as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, praise Sebold for her skill in leading readers through such a “deeply affecting meditation on the ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed,” others bash The Lovely Bones for becoming too much of a self-help text at some moments, and leaning too far toward the implausible at others. Most intriguing, however, is the fact that many critics touch on, but don’t fully key into, the significance of The Lovely Bones as a coming-of-age story. Maria Russo of the Washington Post, for example, hints at The Lovely Bones as a coming-of-age story by titling her review “Girl, Interrupted” (referring to another popular coming-of-age text). On the other hand, Ali Smith of the Guardian writes in response to comparisons between The Lovely Bones and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic coming-of-age novel, that the two are “hardly comparable.” If the two novels are truly incomparable, this is so only because Sebold redefines the coming-of-age story. Via her narrative choices, Sebold reshapes the coming-of-age story to include not only human beings, but heavenly beings as well.

Most people have read at least one coming-of-age story in their long or short career as a student. In middle or high school it might have been Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; in college, it may have been Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, or perhaps Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. These stories usually focus on a young person making the transition to adulthood. He or she undergoes adventures and inner turmoil which serve as a rite of passage. The adventures can be physically, mentally, emotionally, and/or sexually challenging. In the end, the character reaches a new stage of life; via experience, he or she has gained new knowledge and matured.

The last passage of The Lovely Bones draws the reader’s attention to the fact that Susie was never allowed to come of age:

And in a small house five miles away was a man who held my mud-encrusted charm bracelet out to his wife.…

His wife poured him some water from the sink as he fingered the tiny bike and the ballet shoes, the flower basket and the thimble. He held out the muddy bracelet as she set down his glass.

“This little girl’s grown up by now,” she said.

The couple assumes that the found object belongs to the usual little girl, who is grown up by now and is busy enjoying life, her own career, or a family. As both the reader and Susie know, the true scenario is not so pleasant, but rather exceptionally gruesome. Thus, one might argue that The Lovely Bones is not a coming-of-age story; that it cannot be, as the main character dies before reaching maturity. However, Susie’s response to the woman’s statement is “Almost.” Ironically, though robbed of her own earthly rites of passage, Susie has experienced them through watching her sister and others, and with the help of an earthly medium, Ruth.

Though the lessons Susie learns by watching family and friends struggle through the aftermath of her death are crucial, helping her begin to understand the secrets of life, the most important people who assist her in coming of age are her sister, Lindsey; and Ruth, a school acquaintance. While Lindsey toughs out the development of her individuality amid the clouds of others’ pity, so does Susie. When Lindsey falls into her first crush and experiences her first kiss, Susie, too, feels the thrill of first love. And as Lindsey experiences the sweetness and anxiety of her first time having sexual intercourse with a loved one, so does Susie, sort of:

Under a rowboat that was too old and worn to float, Lindsey lay down on the earth with Samuel Heckler, and he held her.…

Their breath began to heat the small space beneath the boat, and he could not stop it—his penis stiffened inside his jeans.…

“I’m sorry…” he began.

“I’m ready,” my sister said.

At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I’d never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.

In this moment, Susie recognizes that her first-hand knowledge of first sex is very different from her sister’s. Though she can witness Lindsey’s positive sexual experience, her being is still clouded with the brutality of her own experience. Regardless, Susie still enjoys observing this and many other landmark moments. Years later, Lindsey fulfills a dream the two sisters shared as she plans to wed her “one and only.” And yet another rite is achieved when Susie experiences motherhood via the birth of Lindsey’s daughter.

There are myriad other moments in The Lovely Bones in which Susie experiences other aspects of coming of age. In addition to experiencing Lindsey’s transitions, Susie also witnesses her mother and father transition into a new adulthood. She watches her broken father come to terms with her murder and the escape of her murderer. She sees her mother grapple with the desire to fulfill the old dreams that she gave up when she married and became “Mom.” She watches her infant brother struggle to become a young boy. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that Lindsey’s trials and tribulations, with their proximity to what Susie would have experienced, are the experiences Susie prizes most:

I watched my sister and marveled. She was becoming everything all at once. A woman. A spy. A jock. The Ostracized: One Man Alone.

And slightly later:

I could never have imagined a blessing greater to me than the physical safety of my sister that day. As I walked back from the gazebo I shivered with the fear that had held me, the possibility of her loss on Earth not just to my father, my mother, Buckley, and Samuel, but, selfishly, the loss of her on Earth to me.

While Susie’s observations allow her to experience many of her missed rites of passage to a certain extent, it is through Ruth that she is able to fully experience the particularly significant rite of sex. In this startling passage, Ruth, who has developed a sensitivity that allows her to note where violent crimes against women and children have occurred, is able to channel Susie. As Susie comes to life in Ruth’s flesh, rather than tell the nearest person, who happens to be Ray Singh (her childhood sweetheart), who her murderer is and where her remains can be found, she asks Ray to make love to her.

I touched every part of him and held it in my hands. I cupped his elbow in my palm. I dragged his pubic hair out straight between my fingers. I held that part of him that Mr. Harvey had forced inside me. Inside my head I said the word gentle, and then I said the word man.

While a number of reviewers have criticized Sebold for including such a hokey scenario, this moment is crucial to Susie’s “almost” coming of age. Though she is dead, and cannot ever truly experience all the crucial moments she enjoys through her sister, she is granted this one grace. Alive in Ruth’s body, Susie gets to experience the sensation of inhabiting a mature body with hips and breasts. She gets to experience the thrill of stowing away in a secret place to engage in the forbidden. And in stark contrast to her brutal rape and murder, making love with Ray Singh both allows her the solace of two bodies coming together in love rather than violence, and takes her across one of the thresholds into adulthood.

Yet another crucial scene in this section is the casual conversation between Susie and Ray. Again, Susie could be divulging information to help recover her bones so that they can be laid to rest in a proper site; or she might use this time to communicate messages for Ray to take to her family. Instead, Susie simply asks Ray what his plans for his future are:

“Will you stay here,” I asked, “after you’re done with school?”

“No one does,” Ray said. “You know that.”

I was almost blinded by it, this choice; the idea that if I’d remained on Earth I could have left this place to claim another, that I could go anywhere I wanted to. And I wondered then, was it the same in heaven as on Earth? What I’d been missing was a wanderlust that came from letting go?

In this scene, Susie is simultaneously coming of age as an earthly being and as a heavenly being. While she reclaims one of Earth’s physical rites, she encounters yet another valuable bit of knowledge: the importance of letting go and moving beyond. Once she realizes that as a human being she would have had the opportunity to shed the old and move on to the new, chosen solely by her, Susie is lead to a new understanding of her heaven. If she can let go, if she can loosen her grip on the past, she can make room for whatever comes next in heaven. Thus, letting go becomes an important lesson for anyone coming of age into any new phase of being.

In The Lovely Bones, while Susie is robbed of the opportunity to participate in earthly rites of passage, she manages to experience many of them through those she left behind. Her heavenly endowment of omniscience is what ultimately reveals to readers the fact that it is not only in the transition from childhood to adulthood, but eternally, that we come of age. Susie’s lessons are learned from all the people she observes, from her seventy-year-old grandmother down to her five-year-old brother. However, The Lovely Bones ultimately pushes the notion of the coming-of-age process into the afterlife, as Susie’s vicarious earthly coming of age coincides with her heavenly coming of age. Thus, comparisons between Sebold’s highly popular contemporary novel and classic coming-of-age tales like To Kill a Mockingbird are far from baseless.

Source: Lara Ramsey, “Coming of Age in The Lovely Bones,” an essay for, 2005. Ramsey is a college instructor and freelance writer and editor.

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Critical Overview