The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

the-lovely-bones-by-alice-sebold coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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If The Lovely Bones had been marketed as the fantasy it is, it would have done well, though not nearly as well as it’s done with the marketing moniker of ‘literature’. But calling a dog a cat doesn’t make it a cat, and calling this literature doesn’t change what it is. It’s modern fantasy, through and through.

The story centers around the observations 14 year-old Susie Salmon makes of her family and friends; what make it fantasy is that Susie is dead and making these observations from heaven. It doesn’t give anything away to tell you that she’s murdered very soon in the book. The rest of the novel is her narrative as she watches the lives of the people who had been important to her in life and how her murder affected them: her parents, sister and brother, Grandmother, a few friends, even the individual who killed her.

Toward the end, one of her friends from childhood plays a large role in the resolution of a relationship Susie had with an almost-boyfriend, but saying more than that would give it away. Suffice to say that the incident, more than anything in the rest of the book, comes straight from fantasy land, so much so that it jars somewhat with the low-key type of fantasy the book had embodied up to that point. You’ll recognize the event I’m talking about when you read it. I have to admit that it didn’t quite work for me in that I thought it kind of hokey, but you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Sebold’s writing is both a strength and a weakness. In places, The Lovely Bones is beautiful and touching, with passages that you’ll read more than once because they are so well done. Yet you’ll stumble across other sections that are almost silly as Sebold strives to make everything more than it needs to be. Characterization is well done, although most of the kids seemed much alike–they are all smart, lonely, smart, lonely, and somewhat outcast. Did I mention they were all smart and lonely? Sebold’s angst-ridden narrative can occasionally grow somewhat tiresome, but overall I think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

As far as story goes, it falls short. There’s no real plot; it’s simply a meandering tale of this character or that as they move through the years following Susie’s death. Interesting, yes, and made cohesive by the singular narrator, but not a story in the traditional sense of event, decision, action, result. An interesting effect that helps keep the story moving is that the narrator has the benefit of knowing the future. Although Susie never talks directly to it, she often drops hints of what’s to come, as though she’s telling the story while looking back on it instead of as it unfolds. More than simple foreshadowing. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean.

Overall, I enjoyed The Lovely Bones. It’s a sad book, despite a core message that’s basically uplifting (that being that we don’t die, we go to heaven). I suspect it might have a stronger impact on those of us who are parents. If a languid, meandering, and (in places) wonderfully written modern fantasy appeals to you, this is a sure hit. If you want more traditional fare, with adventure, plot and conflict, or are someone who prefers leaner, more energetic prose, you’ll probably be bored.

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