Especially when it comes to arts like writings, movies or tv shows, there is no universal good or bad. So, like every single other review you’ll stumble across, this one is purely based on personal preference.
Photo: cc (Creative Commons) by deviantart.com / tomatokisses
That’s the start of the novel The Lovely Bones and the main reason why I was advised to read the book: to see an example for a compelling story start. And she was right, those two sentences immediately got me hooked.
The Lovely Bones is the story of Susie Salmon, who gets raped and murdered when she’s 14 years old. From her heaven, she watches her family and friends on Earth cope with the tragedy. But she also keeps watching the man who murdered her, always hoping that someday her family and friends might uncover the truth about what happened to her.
Review Summary (Spoiler-free)
I loved this book. It’s been years since I read a book that captured me so much I didn’t want to put it down. This story made me cry and think and stayed with me long after I read the last words. Although it’s been classified as a Thriller, Mystery and Young Adult, I feel that’s clearly a mislabeling. The Lovely Bones is neither one of those genres to me. It’s a very honest exploration of a family’s coping with a horrible tragedy. To me, it occasionally falls into the category of literary fiction, especially with regards to its consistent breaking of modern style rules.
Alice Sebold manages to capture the horror of the crime without overplaying it with psychological clichés—which is something only rape survivors manage to do convincingly. The banal reality of the crime is maybe most shocking (and to me, definitely most triggering because of the authenticity) of all. The author also does an amazing job at portraying the family’s pain over Susie’s death.
What impressed me most of all though was the depiction of the passage of time and the use of the first person narrative perspective. Susie is narrator and protagonist—and at the same time uninvolved spectator. Slowly, as time passes, her narrative becomes more distant, thereby showing the process of her slowly accepting the happenings and allowing herself true peace.
Even though this book is based on the concept of heaven, I didn’t find the Christian mythology overbearing, which was a nice surprise. Alice Sebold portrayed a version of heaven that’s a temporary state and largely dependent on the individual—which is in accordance with other religions’s portrayal of heaven. A mention of God is never made, but it can be implied if wanted. The book therefore addresses people of all cultures and beliefs.
I absolutely recommend this book as a read.
Detailed Review (Careful, spoilers may be ahead!)
Plot and Conflict
I was surprised to read the many bad reviews this book received, especially on Goodreads. Criticism was especially directed at the book’s pacing, a perceived missing conflict and a non-existent plot.
I cannot agree with any of these points. Conflict is a rather modern, genre-based conception. There is indeed the rule that if you want your book to sell, you should have conflict in every scene. The reason for that is that conflict will keep tension up and therefore keep the reader’s attention—at a time when readers have been dulled by sensationalism and Hollywood action movies. Everything has to be constant action, even in books.
I don’t agree with that notion. Some of the best books did not have conflict in every scene, and as I stated above, to me The Lovely Bones clearly falls in the category of literary fiction. The author explores human emotion and the coping with tragedy and crime. This story wouldn’t have worked had the author tried to “spice it up” with unnecessary tension.
The Lovely Bones is the story of an ordinary girl, and ordinary family, and even an ordinary murderer. Nobody in the book is extraordinary—and that turns this book into an absolute treasure. At a time where every author seems to be bent on creating strong heroes and heroines with extraordinary skills, jobs, or personal lives, narratives of the ordinary have become so rare that this one feels like the rare cornflower in a field of same-looking wheat.
The tension is this book (as well as the underlying conflict) are the constant encounters between the rapist/murderer and Susie’s family, who have no idea that the man who murdered their daughter is their unsuspicious, albeit somewhat odd, neighbor. Her father develops a suspicion, but neither he nor the police ever find evidence.
Throughout the entire book I sat at the edge of my seat, turning page by page, hoping that somebody would find Susie’s body in the sinkhole, that somebody would find her charm bracelet, or that her sister Lindsey would find compelling evidence when breaking into the psychopath’s house.
True, this book doesn’t offer action-packed conflict and drama in every scene on every page—sometimes it’s the beauty of the ordinary that’s compelling the reader to read on. Traditionally, real artists were always those exploring the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary.
By contrasting the ordinary lives of Susie’s friends and family with her own violent experiences, the author shows the gorge between the characters, and the immensity of what was stolen from Susie in a beautifully compelling way.
As for plot, many people claim that there isn’t one. And there isn’t one, not in the modern money-making-novel sense—unless you start reading between the lines, which I learned not many readers can do anymore nowadays.
The subtlety is the beauty of this story. It’s different from the mainstream, predictable (and often cliché) stories that end up on the bestseller lists these days.
Some of the negative reviews on Goodreads also address the pacing of the book (ergo, they say: it’s slow). I can’t fully disagree with that. Occasionally while reading, I did find myself skipping over paragraphs, which is a clear sign that an editor should have cut some passages out as they weren’t necessary for the story. Occasionally, it felt as though the author got a little too lost in irrelevant occurrences in the lives of fairly unrelated characters. However, to me those moments were rare. And it may just be that I missed an important subtle message there.
Also, the few action scenes in the book (such as Lindsey Salmon sneaking into Mr. Harvey’s house) should have been written at a faster pace. Fast scene, running, heart beating, excitement—all of these should be mirrored in the style through short, crisp sentences and less internal dialogue.
I have to remind myself, however, that The Lovely Bones wasn’t written from Lindsey’s point of view, but from Susie’s, who is just a spectator and therefore doesn’t really feel the excitement more than a third person removed narrator would. The occasional slowness of the style can therefore be read as another symbolism for Susie being removed from the happenings on Earth. Even though she’s watching, she’s no longer part of them. And in that light, I can accept the slower pace and appreciate the purpose it serves.
Based on this book, I heard many reviewers say that Alice Sebold is a very bad author who can’t write. I absolutely don’t agree, given how carefully character, style, narrative voice and plot are woven together to form a perfectly attuned whole. The Lovely Bones, to me, is definitely not pop culture but literary fiction. And Sebold isn’t a bad writer, but rather a very good one.
Are there occasional issues with writing? Of course. There’s hardly any author who has written a perfect book. Some literary scientists claim Henry James to be a perfect author, but I would debate even that claim, as I do not like James’ books at all. And to me a book, where I have to read passages three or four times to grasp even the basics of what’s being said, just doesn’t qualify as ‘perfect’. But, as I said at the beginning, nothing is more subjective than literature and literary style—and, most importantly, interpretations of text.
The characters were well written and fleshed out, even though I would have liked a bit more insight into Mr. Harvey. There are bits and pieces here and there, and overall, the characterization of Mr. Harvey as a psychopathic rapist and murderer isn’t less shady or cliché than your average Criminal Minds psychopath, so I can overlook even that. Especially since more complex characters, who don’t follow certain clichés, tend to be judged as unauthentic by the general readership.
I really liked the style, particular because it’s not brief and succinct, but rather wordy with longer sentences. It’s also often rather tell-ish, which fits perfectly with Susie being removed from the happenings, so to me it was perfect. However, I know many readers these days don’t like longer, wordier styles, even if they serve purposes. So if you get bored easily, or lose track when faced with longer sentences, this book is probably not for you.
Also, dialogue only marks a very low percentage in the book. Most of it is narrative. If you don’t enjoy that in books, you might want to stay away from this one.
The Thesis of Two Rapes
One point of criticism that I came across on the internet regarding this book is a perceived second rape that happens towards the end of the book, when Susie’s soul briefly goes into her friend’s body, and her friend in return gets to go to heaven for a few hours. During those few hours, Susie has sex with the man she loved (and who’s now grown up). The sex is entirely consensual, and Ray (the man Susie loved) is entirely aware that she’s Susie’s soul in Ruth’s body. Yet, some people on the internet apparently classify this encounter as rape, because it happened while Susie was in her friend’s body. Since Ruth was in heaven, she couldn’t consent, therefore Susie ‘rapes’ Ruth by sleeping with Ray, and thereby she closes the circle and becomes exactly like Mr. Harvey.
That argument baffled me and, as always when I’m baffled, I can’t stop thinking about it, even though I immediately felt strong disagreement. The sex is consensual, Ray knows that it’s Susie he’s sleeping with, and Ruth isn’t even there. So is the fact that Susie is in Ruth’s body enough to classify this as a rape?
Ruth is in heaven, where she meets the souls of the murdered girls and women whose graves she found through her psychic abilities.
To me, this is a highly theoretical argument with no real basis in reality. At that point the story moved into spiritual realms by having the two girls trade bodies so that Susie can say goodbye to the man she loved and have a sexual experience beyond the horror of what Mr. Harvey did to her. To me, it was really moving, especially when she contrasted the two experiences.
And if one wishes to uphold the argument of rape, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to say that Ray was the one who raped Ruth? After all, he knew that it was Susie in Ruth’s body, and not Ruth. So was it morally correct of him to agree to have sex with her?
Well, you might say now, but Ray didn’t really believe that it was actually Susie in Ruth’s body. True. Very true, I’ll give you that. But in that case he had to assume that his friend Ruth was having some sort of psychotic breakdown–in which case having sex with her would be even more out of the question. So wouldn’t it be more valid to reason that Ray was a rapist, rather than Susie? (To me, both arguments seem flawed.)
The issue is probably interesting to sci-fi and mystery writers, genres in which body swaps can occur. So does having sex while you’re not in your own body mean that you’re raping the original owner of the body—even if said owner isn’t currently in the body? An interesting train of thought. Who would have to consent in such a case? The person experiencing the sex, or the person who owns the body?
It almost feels to me as though there can’t be a general answer to that question, but that it would have to be judged on a case by case basis.
For this book, I still don’t feel like a second rape happened, even after I contemplated the arguments for a while. I am usually rather sensitive to dubious consent when I read it in a book, which is why the two-rapes-thesis surprised me. But if you have a different opinion, feel free to try and convince me with your arguments. :)
Despite the few (in my opinion minor) flaws I brought up, The Lovely Bones is a book worth reading. And reading again. I for one can’t wait to give it a second read in a few months to see if there’s something that I missed on my first. Wonderful book, compelling story, beautiful style and a gripping conflict that makes you think about your own life.