Overall Impression: Unnerving, beautiful, bizarre and…boring?
I have come across many readers who have strong opinions about The Lovely Bones. Before even reading a page I had heard it hailed as an unforgettable tale able to reduce even the most stoical reader to tears. On the other hand, I had also spoken to others who found it a painful slog through atrocious writing.
Naturally this made me curious.
Considering this is such a well-known bestseller with over a million copies sold I am shocked that it has taken me so long to read it! It’s even famous enough to have made it onto the prestigious Rory Gilmore Book List.
I adored the movie adaptation which I saw several years ago so I will admit I had high expectations. Did it live up to them? Yes and no is the short answer.
Warning: Readers should note that this book does cover the delicate issue of rape, although this is only one aspect of the story. If this topic is a painful trigger, you may not want to read on.
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood.
Watching from her place in heaven, Susie Salmon sees her suburban family devastated by her death, isolated even from one another as they each try to cope with their terrible loss alone. Over the years, her friends and siblings grow up, fall in love, do all the things she never had the chance to do herself.
But life is not quite finished with Susie yet…
Sebold’s writing is quite….I’m searching for the best word here. Odd? I can understand why it has divided so many readers causing both awe and frustration. The story is told from Susie’s point of view after her death and this was one of the many things that drew me into the book. It is an interesting way to write and certainly provoked thought. Throughout the entire novel I had this sense of closeness to the story. With an invisible protagonist you can go anywhere, see anything including people’s deepest darkest hidden emotions. Yet at the same time the narration felt distant, disconnected, and I think that reflected Susie’s predicament perfectly. Death gave her the ability to understand those around her better than she ever did on earth, and yet she cannot be a part of it remaining trapped and unseen by the ones she loves. The narration seemed to have no boundaries and was quite harrowing at times. Susie explained the details of her death in an unsettling, factual and calm manner. The opening scene of this book was one of most uncomfortable I have ever read and will stick with me for a long time. On this level, Sebold has done a fantastic job.
Unfortunately though, for every powerful paragraph there was a jarring one that read awkwardly and didn’t flow at all. At times I felt the author was trying too hard, pushing herself to be insightful when something simple would have worked better. Sebold uses strange word choices that didn’t always seem logical to me. She would write things that left me baffled; it was as if she had these ideas in her head that didn’t quite transfer to the page. Sebold also has a big obsession with similes and metaphors and not in a good way. A few people on Goodreads have noted some of the worst e.g. ‘She asked for coffee and toast in a restaurant and buttered it with her tears.’ For a long time the technique didn’t bother me because I felt it was a reflection of Susie’s voice. She was only supposed to be 14 and noted a few times that she enjoyed her English classes, and who didn’t get a bit carried away with ridiculous similes when they were younger thinking they were being super clever? I also felt like a lot of the emotions she was feeling didn’t necessarily have to make sense, they would be difficult for anyone to deal with let alone someone so young. Whether this is what the author intended or not I don’t know, but it was how I interpreted it. However, as the book went on the similes got worse and more frequent until I couldn’t handle it anymore.
The setting in The Lovely Bones made the book have all the more impact on me. It takes place in the 70s and as Susie describes it, her brutal murder happens in a time that is still somewhat naïve, where only stereotypical white kids are on the side of milk cartons and when horrific stories of child abduction and molestation are not common place. Unfortunately in our current society we have become all too familiar with these stories and so I felt that by Sebold setting her story in the past it created the reaction she intended.
The plot of The Lovely Bones is slow, and there’s no getting around that. I’m a pretty patient reader so it didn’t bother me, but if this is setting a red flag off in your brain then you should probably stay away. There isn’t much going on after the initial first few chapters, essentially Susie talks about death, her version of heaven and watches her loved ones lives as they carry on. It was a lot more insightful of course, but that was the general gist. I raced through the first half of the The Lovely Bones quickly, caught up in the horror of the events and each individual person’s way of coping with Susie’s death, even those who didn’t know her that well. The whole town feels the ripple effects. Unfortunately my thoughts almost totally flipped during the second half and I’ll admit, my attention wandered. The story seemed to drag after that and while I still enjoyed it enough, the last 200-odd pages didn’t add anything to the story for me. As for the ending…well, I’m still confused. What the heck was that crazy mess? I mean, I think I get what Sebold was trying to do but I didn’t like it at all and I don’t think she handled it well, it felt clunky and bizarre out of keeping with the rest of the novel.
Speaking of Sebold’s portrayal of the afterlife, I wasn’t too sure about it. I am not a religious person but I find other people’s beliefs and ideas about the afterlife fascinating and I am always willing to listen. In Sebold’s vision, heaven is a different place and experience for everyone, and there is no mention of heaven or hell or punishment which I found interesting. However, the whole idea felt pretty unstructured and undeveloped to me and I feel like I never fully grasped what she was trying to present. I easily found this the most boring aspect of the book and found myself impatiently wanting to get back to the main story. I think this is one area that the film handled better.
As for the characters well, there is so much to say. I liked Susie a lot. I liked her obsession with her camera. I liked how her heaven looked like the high school she had always dreamed of but was never able to attend and I liked how Sebold didn’t depict her as a perfect innocent child who never did anything wrong, by doing so she made Susie feel realistic as if I could pass her walking down the street. I loved Susie’s dad, his inability to let go was sad but also somehow admirable even when it got him into trouble. Lindsey’s sister made for some fun reading, I found her reaction to Susie’s death the most interesting. I enjoyed watching her grow and change. Susie’s mum was a tricky one, I didn’t like her at all because I felt her actions were cowardly, but by the end of the novel I changed my mind deciding that her decisions actually required a lot of strength and guts. Oddly, I think a lot of my issues with her were rooted in gender stereotypes based on our current society. Once I realised that, I understood and admired her more. Ruth and Ray were a little weird, I’m not sure what I thought about them. As for Mr Harvey, he was one creepy dude. Even though I didn’t feel for him in any way after his horrible actions Sebold still managed to make him an interesting character.
I must admit I am surprised that this book became such a massive hit. No in a harsh way, just in an honest way. While there is a power to Sebold’s words they get dragged down by slow plotting and some seriously weird similes. One thing is for sure though, it’s memorable and seems to provoke a lot of discussion! I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy dark subject matters tackled in unusual ways, books narrated by children\young adults (I know this device gets on some people’s nerves), and those who are generally curious about all the hype! The Lovely Bones would be suitable for males or females 15+. Personally though this is a rare case where I preferred the movie!
Writing Style: 3/5
Character Development: 4/5
Would I recommend this book? Maybe. The film more.
Overall Impression: 3/5
Book Cover: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6522978-the-lovely-bones