BFTA Review: Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones


Title: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold
Obtained: borrowed from library
Little Brown
Rating: 4/5

The details of the crime are laid out in the first few pages: from her vantage point in heaven, Susie Salmon describes how she was confronted by the murderer one December afternoon on her way home from school. Lured into an underground hiding place, she was raped and killed. But what the reader knows, her family does not. Anxiously, we keep vigil with Susie, aching for her grieving family, desperate for the killer to be found and punished.

Sebold creates a heaven that’s calm and comforting, a place whose residents can have whatever they enjoyed when they were alive — and then some. But Susie isn’t ready to release her hold on life just yet, and she intensely watches her family and friends as they struggle to cope with a reality in which she is no longer a part. To her great credit, Sebold has shaped one of the most loving and sympathetic fathers in contemporary literature. (

First, I have to say that I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, and will probably someday get around to seeing it, but I haven’t seen it yet, so it hasn’t tainted the review.
Second, I had a difficult time reading this book. Not because the writing was terrible (it wasn’t), and not because I was bored (I wasn’t), but because the descriptions of Mr. Harvey were very disturbing. For example:
“What I think was hardest for me to realize was that he had tried each time to stop himself. He had killed animals, taking lesser lives to keep from killing a child.” (p. 131)
Mr. Harvey goes around killing neighborhood pets to keep from killing children. This obviously doesn’t work, but he tries. What this tells me is that he knows his crime is wrong, and he commits lesser crimes (can you go to prison for killing a kitten?) to keep from committing murder. All in all, the description of Mr. Harvey and how he lives disturbed me more than anything else.
“He had perfected his patter to the police, a certain obsequious innocence peppered with wonder about their procedures or useless ideas that he presented as if they might help. Bringing up the Ellis boy with Fenerman had been a good stroke, and the lie that he was a widower always helped. He fashioned a wife out of whatever victim he’d recently been taking pleasure in his memory, and to flesh her out there was always his mother.” (p. 175)
I really loved the way this book was written. Despite being disgusted with Mr. Harvey, I loved Sebold’s descriptions of him. I suppose, in a way, being disgusted with the killer is another way of saying the author really hooked me with her writing/characters.
I also want to talk about Susie’s family. We see, as time goes on, that Mrs. Salmon leaves Mr. Salmon and eventually makes her way to California, where she ends up working at a vineyard. Mrs. Salmon intrigued me. She is so desperate to escape her daughter’s death, to forget it ever happened, that she leaves her family (essentially abandoning them), and even goes so far as to have an affair with the lead detective on the case, Fenerman. Her leaving doesn’t sit too well with the family, especially the children. Lindsey, Susie’s sister, seems to adjust pretty well. She mourns her sister, joining in on the one-year anniversary vigil the neighborhood has in the cornfield (her mother, it is interesting to note, does not participate in this vigil, again showing that she does not want to remember the death of her daughter). Buckley, the youngest child, is so young when Susie dies that he doesn’t remember her much; but boy, does he remember his mother leaving, even going so far as to say, “Fuck you” to her when she attempts to talk to him after her return.
Mr. Salmon is the only one in the family who can’t seem to let go of Susie. It is interesting that we have two polar opposites in reactions to death: Mr. Salmon grieves to the point of self-destruction, and Mrs. Salmon is in complete denial.
It is in the children that we see the natural movement of grieving; Lindsey eventually moves on and finds a boyfriend (later, he becomes her husband). She becomes well-adjusted, though at first she has difficulty, since all people see when they look at her is her dead sister. Ray and Ruth, respectively, also grow from Susie’s death. Ray mourns her, mourns their only kiss, and moves on to go to college. Ruth, who eventually moves to New York, becomes what we would probably think of as a medium, or a psychic. All three children have learned from the experience, grown from it.
I found this book to be a joy to read, despite being disturbed by Mr. Harvey. It was, above all, truthful; we don’t all respond the same way to death; we don’t all grieve the same way, and I love that Sebold was honest in her characters. Even though the family never has closure (they, at least within the confines of the novel, never find out what happens to Mr. Harvey), it’s okay. It’s rare that I read a book and don’t become frustrated by the lack of closure at the end, but in this case I didn’t mind it so much.

Originally posted on 17 October 2010.


One thought on “BFTA Review: Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones

  1. Pingback: March 2013 Recap | Before Midnight

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