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The (Not So) Lovely Bones
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The (Not So) Lovely Bones

Well, I finished Alice Sebold's best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones" this weekend. I have to say, it was a huge disappointment.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, the novel begins with the rape and murder of 14 year-old Susie Salmon by a creepy neighborhood fellow named Mr. Harvey. The entire rest of the novel is narrated from Susie's point of view, from her own semi-private heaven. She looks down on her family from a heavenly gazebo, watching them come to terms with her death and rebuild their lives. She also watches Mr. Harvey, as well as the police who are investigating her murder.

[Warning: Spoilers up ahead. Don't keep going if you don't want to know what happens.]

Now, the book starts out strong, with an interesting premise and a strong narrative voice. But as it goes on (and on and on), the narrative loses steam. Too many characters are followed, along too many threads, and the thread that holds the most tension (will Susie's killer be caught and brought to justice?) is left to wilt. What we really care about is cast aside in lieu of reading about her teenage friend Ruth's musings on the effects of alcohol on clothing or her grandma's make-up tips.

And ultimately, the characters act in ways that do not endear you to them, but rather create an alienating effect.

Most notably, Susie's mother, grief-stricken by her daughter's death, has an affair with the policeman investigating the crime. He falls deeply in love with her (as every man who meets her apparently does), but she tosses him aside as well, moving to California to work for a winery. In doing so, she abandons her husband and her two remaining children for over eight years. Susie simply remarks in a detached philosophical way about this behavior, talking about her mother trying to "find herself". And upon her return, only the youngest child, Buckley, has anything resembling anger for her. "Fuck you," he says under his breath when they pick her up from the airport, one of only a few semi-realistic portrayals of emotion in the book. Everyone else, from her daughter to her husband to her grandma is apparently peachy keen with her abandoning her family at a time when they are grieving too.

Which brings me to another subject, and that's the portrayal of male characters in the book. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else out there who has read it, and how perspectives break out via gender lines. The men, almost uniformly, seem completely unrealistic. Many of the female characters are three-dimensional, with interesting personalities. But the men, from Susie's boyfriend Ray Singh to her father, seem like idealizations rather than real characters. Ray never says a harsh word. He's sweet, intelligent, and well-mannered. The father, though, is the worst example in the book. When his wife runs away he doesn't get angry or frustrated. He apparently just raises the kids on his own, with the help of the grandma. When he has a heart attack, and his wife returns, drawn back only because he might die, he is still in love with her, totally forgiving. This woman has turned her back on her family, denying her children a mother for eight years. So essentially they lost a sister and a mother, one because she was murdered, the other because she selfishly fled in her grief. And the father hardly bats an eyelash.

So I essentially found the male figures, even the murderer, cardboard. They were devoid of any sort of realistic motivation, and to me they fell totally flat.

As for the plot, like I said, it branched off into so many tributaries that it was too diffuse to really care about. Mr. Harvey was followed as an afterthought, as though his potential to kill others was not to be worried about. In the end, almost as a footnote, we find out that he just slipped into an icy ravine near a bus stop one day and died. Great. I think the message here is that sometimes closure has to be made as a conscious decision, that sometimes crises don't wrap themselves up into tidy bundles. But it was horribly unsatisfying from a fictional point of view, and ironic as well, since so many other plot points were tied up with neat little bows.

Susie comes back down to earth one last time, in a scene reminiscent of Patrick Swayze entering Whoopi Goldberg to kiss Demi Moore in Ghost. Only Susie enters her friend Ruth's body so she can have sex with Ray. I found myself wondering if she was still essentially a 14 year-old, now having sex with Ray in his 20s, or whether she had matured emotionally over the past eight years in heaven (where I would think that the passage of time might be irrelevant). Thing is, we don't get a real sense of what the rules are with regard to her heaven, and that undermines the suspension of disbelief as well. Anyway, why is this event, stepping down from heaven to have sex, so crucial to the development of the character? Why is this what's necessary before she can "move on" in her heaven to an even better place?

I suppose you would've expected me to completely dump all over a book that tries to render heaven in a believable and sympathetic way. Well, not necessarily. But the notion of heaven, and in particular Sebold's rendering of it, seem to inherently devalue human life. She isn't really concerned with Mr. Harvey and whether he might rape and kill again. The father seems to be frowned upon by the narrative for becoming obsessed with trying to catch Susie's killer (he puts his other daughter in harm's way and eventually gets savagely beaten for trying). The message seems to be, "Let it go". Don't worry about catching the killer, or in justice. The overriding principles of the day are all about turning a blind eye to evil (it'll just wander off and fall in a ravine somewhere eventually) and ultimate, unequivocal forgiveness. Now don't get me wrong, I think forgiveness is definitely a virtue, but I don't believe people should automatically be entitled to it. Like love or trust, to a certain extent it should be earned. And as far as just trying to forget about the Mr. Harvey's of the world, hoping they'll just fall into a pit on their own...well, you probably know how I feel about that.

So even though this book has been enormously popular and extremely well-reviewed, I cannot recommend it. Many of its characters are thin, its plot diffuse, and its moral worldview intermittantly banal and repulsive.

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