The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – A Book Review
(This book deals with some heavy stuff, so I’ll warn about it now.)
The Lovely Bones tells a story about the rape and murder of fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon—literally three sentences in—and the results about it in her family and community. Susie narrates the story from her personal heaven, but although the story is told from her point of view, she is not the main character. The book follows a sort of ‘cast ensemble’: Susie’s sister Lindsey, her father Jack, her mother Abigail, her younger brother Buckley, her first love Ray, her classmate Ruth, her murder’s investigator Len, and her neighbor-turned-killer Mr. Harvey. The book is not a murder mystery—you know within the first few pages that Mr. Harvey is the culprit—nor is it a thriller, or a horror story. It’s a bit hard to say exactly what genre the book is, but I would just say that it’s drama.
The story does not have a happy beginning, middle, or end. I doubt this is a spoiler, but Susie does not return from the dead for the sake of a happy ending. I even hesitate to say that the ending is going to satisfy everyone, or that it’s meant to. The book does not follow the usual book outline, either—it does not go from point A to point B, and it doesn’t have a big climax to it.
The book is about healing from the loss of a child/love/sister/friend. We see how each character goes through Susie’s murder, in healthy ways and unhealthy, through union and division. It has one or two supernatural elements to it, but otherwise, the story is about as rooted in reality as it gets. Because of this, and because the story is told through Susie’s eyes as she watches her family grieve her, it’s a very personal experience. I would argue that, because Susie herself does not enact much effect on the plot, and we don’t see very much of her personality, it’s almost like watching your family deal with your death.
That being said, Susie dealing with her own murder is also a-little-too-personal-in-a-relatable-way. Through her narration, Susie laments some of the things that we fear: being separated from family, dying at a young age, watching something horrible happen and not being able to help. The question that keeps Susie from reaching ‘wide, wide heaven’ is, I think, a question we all encounter when we lose a loved one: Why?
It’s the personal attachment, not a heart-racing plot, that kept me reading. Halfway through the book, I realized that there was not going to be a ‘happy’ ending to the plot, but it wasn’t the plot that I was concerned with. When I wasn’t relating to Susie and her struggle with ‘Why’, I was imagining myself in the places of the other characters. Lindsey deals with losing her older sister (I have an older sister myself) and being left in her shadow. Jack, like Susie, keeps fighting for an answer to ‘Why’ that can’t really come. Even Abigail, who I have found most readers dislike, has a relatable experience of trying to escape from an inescapable situation. Buckley is the smallest character, but while Lindsey is older and can deal with her and her parents’ grief, Buckley does not remember Susie quite as well (being so young) and is left to watch the people he loves fall apart. Sebold herself was a rape victim in college, so I’d argue that the story comes from a personal place, which is likely why it works so well.
Even scenes revolving around the absolutely despicable Mr. Harvey are interesting to watch—for me, it was because of the knowledge that people like Mr. Harvey do exist and have done the things he has done, and the book takes a gander on why they are the way that they are. But, much like Susie’s ‘Why’, there really isn’t an answer. We find out a bit of Mr. Harvey’s backstory, but it is never enough to excuse his actions, which is realistically unsatisfactory.
The book is probably the saddest that I’ve ever read, but it’s now one of my favorites. It’s odd, because my other favorite books are so different from this, but none of them have resonated with me so much. The book is also very well-written—it’s difficult to describe, but it captures the emotions of the characters and their observations without being too personal to that specific character. Like before, the writing makes it easy to replace Susie’s family with your own family, so even with just a bit of description, you can understand how they feel perfectly.
Even if I couldn’t relate to the characters, I’d still admire them. I believe my favorite character was Grandma Lynn. You don’t see her grieving nearly as much as the other family members, but you can tell Susie’s death has affected her, or at least made her realize how detached she is from her family and daughter. Buckley’s lack of grief also makes him a calm kind of mediator compared to the rest of his family—while they may be caught up in a moment, Buckley is there as a kind of outsider-looking-in and reacts more on sympathy than empathy. I will say this: there is a scene involving Buckley towards the end of the book that is probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever read.
However, I will not say that every part of the book is perfect. The dialogue is not always natural. It may sound cool or sweet, but once or twice I was taken out of the moment because I asked myself, “Who on earth would say that?” Because Susie is omnipresent throughout the book, the parts where she sees something good happening to her family and reacts with joy and excitement can be a bit off-putting.
I found the Ruth’s and Ray’s parts to be the most lackluster out of the cast’s. Ruth’s story was interesting enough—I don’t count it as much of a spoiler since it happens early, but basically, Susie’s soul “touches” Ruth as it goes to heaven. So Ruth’s story mainly revolves around trying to find out if ghosts are real, and what happened to Susie, if she was ‘the one.’ But Ruth herself does not have a very strong character. I could never describe her personality right. Ray’s story is about moving on from his high school sweetheart’s death, but I’m not going to lie, it got a little annoying at some point. Ray and Susie never really dated, they kissed once and barely spoke to one another—all when they were fourteen—but Ray and Susie both act like they were each other’s true love. It’s hard to believe Ray would still be hung up about it after such a long period of time.
I can’t give specifics, but there’s also a supernatural event that occurs with Ray near the ending, and it felt very unnecessary and awkward, and honestly a little creepy. It was probably the one part of the book I wanted to skip over.
But besides that, this is probably one of my favorite books now, albeit I think it’ll take a while before I pick it up again.