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Classic review: The Lovely Bones

In Alice Sebold's debut novel, the dead must learn to let go, too

By Ron Charles / November 8, 2009

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on July 25, 2002.]
Don't start Lovely Bones unless you can finish it. The book begins with more horror than you could imagine, but closes with more beauty than you could hope for.

Still, there are reasons not to open this runaway bestseller. In the first chapter, 14-year-old Susie Salmon describes how she was enticed into a little cave by a neighbor on a snowy day. He stuffs her hat into her mouth. They both hear her mother calling her for dinner. He rapes her, cuts her throat, and then dismembers the body. It's the most terrifying scene I've ever read.

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For the next seven years, she describes how her family and friends – and even her murderer – cope with her absence. She's in heaven, so she can see everything from up there. It sounds mawkish, like a ghastly version of "Beloved" for white suburbia, but Alice Sebold has done something miraculous here.

It's no coincidence that the novel has been embraced during a period of high anxiety about child abductions – perhaps the only dread darker than our new fear of terrorism.

With her disarming wit and adolescent candor, Susie drags us behind those stories from Salt Lake City and Stanton, Calif., forcing us to consider the mechanics of rape and murder and grief in a way no news report ever could.

A few days after her death, Susie realizes that all the people she's with now are experiencing their own versions of heaven, reflecting their simplest dreams and aspirations from earth.

"There were no teachers in the school," she tells us about her paradise. "We never had to go inside except for art class for me and jazz for my roommate. Our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue. Our heaven had an ice cream shop where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one ever said, 'It's seasonal'; it had a newspaper where our pictures appeared a lot and made us look important."

She also discovers that heaven isn't perfect. What she wants most is "to be allowed to grow up." But that's out.

And so she turns back to her friends and family on earth, ordinary people "who had never understood, as they did now, what the word

meant." Here, she almost enjoys the voyeurism that allows her to learn what life could have been.

The power of "Lovely Bones" flows from this voice, a voice at once charmingly adolescent and tragically mature. She cares for her parents and siblings beyond measure, but the cosmic distance between them gives her a perspective that resolves the blur of sentimentality or vengeance even when the pain she's describing makes you wince.

Her father spends his days squirming under the weight of guilt for not being there to save his child. Her mother, who always felt cramped by maternal duties, finds the new burden of grief more than she can bear. And her sister moves through school trapped in the "Walking Dead Syndrome – when other people see the dead person and don't see you."

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