The Lovely Bones
Alice Sebold, 2002
Little, Brown & Co.
When we first meet Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. As she looks down from this strange new place, she tells us, in the fresh and spirited voice of a fourteen-year-old girl, a tale that is both haunting and full of hope.
In the weeks following her death, Susie watches life on Earth continuing without her—her school friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her family holding out hope that she'll be found, her killer trying to cover his tracks. As months pass without leads, Susie sees her parents' marriage being contorted by loss, her sister hardening herself in an effort to stay strong, and her little brother trying to grasp the meaning of the word gone.
And she explores the place called heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counselors to help newcomers adjust and friends to room with. Everything she ever wanted appears as soon as she thinks of it—except the thing she most wants: to be back with the people she loved on Earth.
With compassion, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie sees her loved ones pass through grief and begin to mend. Her father embarks on a risky quest to ensnare her killer. Her sister undertakes a feat of remarkable daring. And the boy Susie cared for moves on, only to find himself at the center of a miraculous event.
The Lovely Bones is luminous and astonishing, a novel that builds out of grief the most hopeful of stories. In the hands of a brilliant new writer, this story of the worst thing a family can face is transformed into a suspenseful and even funny novel about love, memory, joy, heaven, and healing. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—September 6 1963
• Where—Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
• Education—B.A., Syracuse University; M.F.A., University of
• Currently—lives in Long Beach, California
As Alice Sebold relates in her chilling memoir Lucky, she was considered fortunate for surviving a violent, devastating rape in her freshman year at Syracuse University. The woman before her had not been so "lucky": She was murdered and dismembered.
The shadow of this fact survives in Sebold's acclaimed novel The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by another not-so-lucky victim from beyond the grave. It's such a maudlin premise that the book shouldn't have been successful—in fact, Sebold's editor has told the author that the manuscript never would have been bought if she had been told what it was about before reading it.
But in her ability to convey the brutal details of crime and its aftermath—both the imagined instance and the real—Sebold is a gripping writer. She is straightforward, but not simply a reporter; in The Lovely Bones, she maintains with sympathy and humor the voice of a 14-year-old who continues, from heaven, to be engaged with life on earth. Without pandering or overwriting, Sebold can elicit tears with the simple but painfully true expression of a character's thought or wish.
• Sebold is married to author Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil. The two met when Sebold was in the fiction writing program at University of California, Irvine.
• Part of the aftermath of Sebold's traumatic rape in college was a long period of self-abuse, including heroin addiction. After a hard trial in New York trying (and failing) to get published, Sebold decided to leave the city and ultimately applied to grad school at Irvine. ''I couldn't handle the rejection and the failure anymore...and the 'almost' of it all,'' she told Entertainment Weekly. ''Everybody from New York has their almost-but-not-quite story, and I just felt like I don't want to be walking around on the planet trotting out mine.''
• Sebold says that her continued failures ended up creating a good mindset for her writing. "After a while, you don't think what can't be done and what can be done, because no one's going to care anyway," she said in an Associated Press interview. "You just go and have fun in your room, which is what, to me, art should be about anyway." (Christina Nunez - From Barnes and Noble.)
At its most basic level, The Lovely Bones is about how family and friends cope with every parent's worst nightmare. For the next 8 1/2 years, Suzie looks down from heaven as her father and police attempt to find her murderer. As our narrator, Suzie is omniscient, with the ability to see into the hearts and minds of all, tracing their descent into grief and back out again. On another level, though, the story is a retelling of the Persephone / Demeter myth.
A LitLovers LitPick (July '08)
A savagely beautiful story.... The Salmon family's tragedy is...palpable and multifaceted...a strange and compelling novel....
Sebold takes an enormous risk in her wonderfully strange début novel: her narrator, Susie Salmon, is dead -- murdered at the age of fourteen by a disturbed neighbor -- and speaks from the vantage of Heaven. Such is the author's skill that from the first page this premise seems utterly believable. Susie's voice has all the inflections of a smart teen-ager's, by turns inquisitive, sarcastic, and wistful; unplacated by Heaven, she watches as her family falls apart and her friends resume their lives without her. Sebold slips easily from the ordinary pleasures of a suburban childhood (cutting class; the first kiss) to moments of eerie beauty (a cloud of souls, "all of them clamoring at once inside the air"). If in the end she reaches too far, the book remains a stunning achievement.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Sebold's first novel after her memoir, Lucky is a small but far from minor miracle. Sebold has taken a grim, media-exploited subject and fashioned from it a story that is both tragic and full of light and grace. The novel begins swiftly. In the second sentence, Sebold's narrator, Susie Salmon, announces, "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Susie is taking a shortcut through a cornfield when a neighbor lures her to his hideaway. The description of the crime is chilling, but never vulgar, and Sebold maintains this delicate balance between homely and horrid as she depicts the progress of grief for Susie's family and friends. She captures the odd alliances forged and the relationships ruined: the shattered father who buries his sadness trying to gather evidence, the mother who escapes "her ruined heart, in merciful adultery." At the same time, Sebold brings to life an entire suburban community, from the mortician's son to the handsome biker dropout who quietly helps investigate Susie's murder. Much as this novel is about "the lovely bones" growing around Susie's absence, it is also full of suspense and written in lithe, resilient prose that by itself delights. Sebold's most dazzling stroke, among many bold ones, is to narrate the story from Susie's heaven (a place where wishing is having), providing the warmth of a first-person narration and the freedom of an omniscient one. It might be this that gives Sebold's novel its special flavor, for in Susie's every observation and memory of the smell of skunk or the touch of spider webs is the reminder that life is sweet and funny and surprising,. Agent, Henry Dunow. (July 3) Forecast: Sebold's memoir, Lucky, was the account of her rape in 1981, at Syracuse University. It is, of course, impossible to read The Lovely Bones without considering the memoir, but the novel moves Sebold effortlessly into literary territory. A long list of writers including Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen blurb The Lovely Bones, and booksellers should expect the novel to move quickly; the early buzz has been considerable. Foreign rights have been sold in England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain and Sweden, with film rights to Film Four.
Sebold, whose previous book, Lucky, told of her own rape and the subsequent trial of her attacker, here offers a powerful first novel, narrated by Susie Salmon, in heaven. Brutally raped and murdered by a deceptively mild-mannered neighbor, Susie begins with a compelling description of her death. During the next ten years, she watches over her family and friends as they struggle to cope with her murder. She observes their disintegrating lives with compassion and occasionally attempts, sometimes successfully, to communicate her love to them. Although the lives of all who knew her well are shaped by her tragic death, eventually her family and friends survive their pain and grief. In Sebold's heaven, Susie continues to grow emotionally. She learns that human existence is "the helplessness of being alive, the dark bright pity of being human feeling as you went, groping in corners and opening your arms to light all of it part of navigating the unknown." Sebold's compelling and sometimes poetic prose style and unsparing vision transform Susie's tragedy into an ultimately rewarding novel. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. —Cheryl L. Conway, Univ. of Arkansas Lib., Fayetteville.
An extraordinary, almost-successful debut that treats sensational material with literary grace, narrated from heaven by the victim of a serial killer and pedophile. "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." These opening lines in Susie's thoroughly engaging voice show the same unblinking and straightforward charm that characterized Sebold's acclaimed memoir, Lucky (2002)—the true story of the author's surviving a brutal rape when she was a college freshman. Now, the fictional Susie recounts her own rape and—less lucky than the author—murder in a Pennsylvania suburb at the hands of a neighbor. Susie's voice is in exquisite control when describing the intensity and complexity of her family's grief, her longing for Ray Singh-the first and only boy to kiss her-and the effect her death has on Ruth, the lonely outsider whose body her soul happened to brush while rising up to a personal, whimsical, yet utterly convincing heaven. Rapt delight in the story begins to fade, though, as the narrative moves farther away in time from Susie's death and grows occasionally forced or superficial as Susie watches what happens over the next decade to everyone she knew on earth, including her killer. By the time Susie's soul enters Ruth's body long enough to make love to Ray, the author's ability to convince the reader has flagged. The closing third forces its way toward affirmative closure, and even the language changes tone: "The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future." Works beautifully for so long as Susie simply tells the truth, then falters when the author goes for bigger truths about Love and Life. Still, mostly mesmerizing and deserving of the attention it's sure to receive.
1. In Susie's Heaven, she is surrounded by things that bring her peace. What would your Heaven be like? Is it surprising that in Susie's inward, personal version of the hereafter there is no God or larger being that presides?
2. Why does Ruth become Susie's main connection to Earth? Was it accidental that Susie touched Ruth on her way up to Heaven, or was Ruth actually chosen to be Susie's emotional conduit?
3. Rape is one of the most alienating experiences imaginable. Susie's rape ends in murder and changes her family and friends forever. Alienation is transferred, in a sense, to Susie's parents and siblings. How do they each experience loneliness and solitude after Susie's death?
4. Why does the author include details about Mr. Harvey's childhood and his memories of his mother? By giving him a human side, does Sebold get us closer to understanding his motivation? Sebold explained in an interview about the novel that murderers "are not animals but men," and that is what makes them so frightening. Do you agree?
5. Discuss the way in which guilt manifests itself in the various characters—Jack, Abigail, Lindsay, Mr. Harvey, Len Fenerman.
6. "Pushing on the inbetween" is how Susie describes her efforts to connect with those she has left behind on Earth. Have you ever felt as though someone was trying to communicate with you from "the inbetween"?
7. Does Buckley really see Susie, or does he make up a version of his sister as a way of understanding, and not being too emotionally damaged by, her death? How do you explain tragedy to a child? Do you think Susie's parents do a good job of helping Buckley comprehend the loss of his sister?
8. Susie is killed just as she was beginning to see her mother and father as real people, not just as parents. Watching her parents' relationship change in the wake of her death, she begins to understand how they react to the world and to each other. How does this newfound understanding affect Susie?
9. Can Abigail's choice to leave her family be justified?
10. Why does Abigail leave her dead daughter's photo outside the Chicago Airport on her way back to her family?
11. Susie observes that "The living deserve attention, too." She watches her sister, Lindsay, being neglected as those around her focus all their attention on grieving for Susie. Jack refuses to allow Buckley to use Susie's clothes in his garden. When is it time to let go?
12. Susie's Heaven seems to have different stages, and climbing to the next stage of Heaven requires her to remove herself from what happens on Earth. What is this process like for Susie?
13. In The Lovely Bones, adult relationships (Abigail and Jack, Ray's parents) are dysfunctional and troubled, whereas the young relationships (Lindsay and Samuel, Ray and Susie, Ray and Ruth) all seem to have depth, maturity, and potential. What is the author saying about young love? About the trials and tribulations of married life?
14. Is Jack Salmon allowing himself to be swallowed up by his grief? Is there a point where he should have let go? How does his grief process affect his family? Is there something admirable about holding on so tightly to Susie's memory and not denying his profound sadness?
15. Ray and Susie's final physical experience (via Ruth's body) seems to act almost as an exorcism that sweeps away, if only temporarily, Susie's memory of her rape. What is the significance of this act for Susie, and does it serve to counterbalance the violent act that ended Susie's life?
16. Alice Sebold seems to be saying that out of tragedy comes healing. Susie's family fractures and comes back together, a town learns to find strength in each other. Do you agree that good can come of great trauma?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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