The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold Review 3/5

Overall Impression: Unnerving, beautiful, bizarre and…boring?

I have come across many readers who have strong opinions about The Lovely Bones. Before even The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold1reading 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
Originality: 3/5
Entertainment: 3/5
Character Development: 4/5
Would I recommend this book? Maybe. The film more.

Overall Impression: 3/5

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28 thoughts on “The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold Review 3/5

  1. I remember this was one that didn’t do a lot for me. Perhaps I was expecting to be thoroughly shaken by word-of-mouth reports of it, and so it was bound to disappoint.

    If I’d gone into it cold, it might have done better. A friend who watched the film said ‘they took the boring parts out’ when they made it.

    Brilliant review as ever!

    • I can understand why you might have been expecting more from all the hype. When something is praised that much you expect to be blow away which a lot of the time leads to disappointment! I agree, while I thought it was quite haunting, I wasn’t as shaken as I expected to be either.

      I am inclined to agree with your friend. In the film they keep the same core aspects, plot points and messages but they amp it up more and take some of the unnecessary bits out that drag it down. It’s definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. 🙂

      Hehee, thank you, Tony!

  2. I’m not sure why I picked this one up. I think my wife read and enjoyed it and I was curious. Mostly I enjoyed it, and i was impressed at the tone she kept up throughout, even through the more disturbing sections.

    • You’re wife has good taste, hehee. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed The Lovely Bones too! I would say overall I enjoyed it and you’re right, I thought her tone was a great mixture of haunting and playful. I’m glad I read it and I think I will remember it for a long time. It’s just a shame that a couple of things let it down for me, especially the pacing.

  3. You really hit it on the nail with this one Becky. I was very intrigued by premise of the story, curious to see how telling it from a dead girl’s perspective worked, but the pacing is so slow that it was hard to keep focused. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s good to know that you enjoyed it. Great review Becky! 🙂

    • Thanks, Lindsey, I’m glad you think so! The premise was great and pretty original at the time it was originally published, perhaps not so uncommon now. For the most part Susie’s voice really worked for me, I found her a compelling character but you’re right, the pacing is definitely a bit off!

      Ohh, you HAVE to see the film if you enjoyed the book, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Thank you. 😀

  4. I felt the same way. The portrayal of the after-life was so confusing to me and the agonizingly slow portions were what led me to stop reading the book. That- mixed with the fact that I underestimated how hard the rape and scenes with that guy would bother me so much. What made it even worse is I lived in the Fairfax area where the book is set so everything began to creep me out as I read. But, I remember the exact moment I put the book away. I was frustrated with the dragging portion and when the book wasn’t slow I was crying so I just couldn’t last. You’ve given me hope for the movie, though. I never watched it so now I’m thinking I might. Great review!

    • Hi Lauren, thanks for stopping by my blog!
      I completely agree, I would say the portrayal of the afterlife was probably the biggest issue I had with the book. Somehow it didn’t quite work for me and I found it very uninteresting, which is a problem when it takes up a reasonable proportion of the book!
      Yes, going into the start of a novel with a brutal rape scene is really quite soul shaking, but at the same time I felt it was necessary to show the horror of it in order to justify and set up the rest of the story. I believe the author also had her own personal experience with rape so that could explain why she captured it in such a horrendously visceral way. Ohh no that’s awful, I think that would freak me out too!
      Ha, that about sums this book up perfectly. 🙂 Definitely give the movie a shot, you won’t be disappointed!

  5. I kind of love this book. I love the language she uses that is surprising and poignant, and very quietly takes you through a variety of emotions. Perhaps it’s the poet in me (I studied poetry in college), so I think I looked at her word choices a little differently. I can definitely see how it doesn’t appeal to some! This book definitely isn’t a roller coaster ride, it’s more of a train ride – slowly churning along the tracks to it’s destination.

    • I’m glad you love this book Rachel, a lot of people do! I agree that Sebold is brilliant at taking you through every emotional aspect that accompanies grief, and there is definitely a poetic element to her writing. I didn’t study poetry any further than was required in my education so perhaps you are right. Overall I felt she did a brilliant job, there were just a few issues that let it down for me. I can definitely see why it has divided so many people.
      I personally don’t have any problems with a churning train, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride I say. 🙂 I did however feel that the last 200-odd pages lessened the overall impact of the story though.

    • Ohh I would definitely say I enjoyed it! I found it a very interesting read and I’m glad I chose to pick it up. I was all set to give in four shiny stars until the last third of the book, unfortunately after that point I felt it lost a bit of momentum and substance that the former parts had.
      Hehee, no we can’t, and the world would be boring if we all had the same opinions. 🙂 Thanks for reading book buddy!

  6. Hmm, it’s been just about 2 years since I read this (at least according to when I posted my review of it) but I don’t really remember having any problems with the pacing of the book. I did say in my review that I thought the book went on a bit too long, so maybe I got a bit bored by the end of the book as well, who knows.

    (Small spoiler ahead.)
    I really enjoyed the way that Sebold showed how each individual member of the family was dealing with Susie’s death. My biggest problem with the book was definitely how she dealt with Harvey’s character. She probably shouldn’t have shown anything about his past or what happened to him after he left the town. The story wasn’t about him, and too much of his story in the book felt like it was trying to explain his behavior and show that he got his comeuppance.

    All in all I really enjoyed the book though.

    • Yes, I think I vaguely remember reading your review at some point! I think it was when I had just started blogging. 🙂 It’s good that you didn’t find the pacing an issue. It didn’t really bother me that much until right near the end but I know that it could potentially frustrate certain readers. As you have mentioned it was definitely the ending of the book that let it down a little, I felt like some of the story lines went on a little longer than needed.

      I completely agree, I think that was by far the best aspect of The Lovely Bones. Sebold did such a great job of depicting all the different and complex reactions individuals have when experiencing grief, it was really quite impressive. I find it interesting that you had a problem with her depiction of Mr Harvey because even weeks after finishing the book I am still unsure how I feel about that aspect of the book. I didn’t at any point feel sorry for him but I did think hearing about his past made him more of a rounded character. Whether it added anything to the book could be debated….especially as it was Susie’s story as you say.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Adam. 🙂

  7. I’m so glad that you reviewed this! I picked up a used copy years ago but was always hesitant to start it because of the controversial reactions and subject matter. It’s great to get better insight into what the book is really about, and I’m definitely going to be reading it this spring!

    • Ohh good! I’m glad this review was in some way useful, that always makes my day. 🙂 I can definitely relate to your hesitation because I did the exact same thing! I acquired this book used off ebay quite a few years ago. Why on earth did it take me so long? I guess I was waiting to be in the right mood for it because as you say it contains dark subject matters that you wouldn’t necessarily always be in the right mood for.
      I’m so happy you’ve decided to bump this up your to-read pile, I hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading!

  8. I saw the film but haven’t read the book and not sure I’m going to. The subject matter is depressing and if it’s also boring – hmm, wouldn’t be in a hurry to bump this up the reading list.
    I kind of like “Buttered it with tears”. It’s not something you hear every day.
    Re the author’s version of heaven being a different place and experience for each individual. I’m going off topic here, but heaven in the TV show Supernatural is like that. Everyone goes to their personal heaven made of the happiest memories of their life, something which might sound nice but I find to be a terribly lonely idea. Anyhew – back to this blog post. Great review as always Becky.

    • Ohh, how did you like the film Emma? It seems most people that have commented haven’t seen it but I remember loving it! Although I may be biased because hey, Peter Jackson and Saorise Ronan are my fave’s. The subject matter is definitely depressing, yet the book is also weirdly hopeful and pro life which you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
      Hehee each to their own. 🙂 The thing is, the metaphor’s and similes don’t sound as bad in isolation, but when they are on every other page it tends to get a bit tiring, for instance I think there was another one where she compared someone eyes to bulging olives. Weird. Ohh yes of course, Supernatural! I love Supernatural. Gimmie some Winchester boys any day, they’re fab. 😀 It’s funny you mention that because I agree, it does seem lonley.

      Awwh, thank you!

      • Bulging olives, weird indeed! I liked the film, but then I think Saoirse Ronan is always great, even in The Host. 🙂
        Have a great weekend, Becky.

      • Ahaa, yeah, and there are tonnes more, some worse than others. Ohh good. 🙂 I think she’s great too, she has such presence. I’m slowly working my way through all her films.
        Thanks Emma, it’s great so far. I hope yours has been good too!

  9. I read this book SO LONG ago all I remember is she was a ghostly narrator, which is what caught a ton of attention. No days you see more crazy POVs but I don’t think it was too common then. In fact, I think they mentioned this book in my creative writing course because of it.
    I don’t remember being bored, but I don’t remember being blown away either. It was ok. I wouldn’t reread it or buy it again to display on my shelves…

    • Yes, I get the impression that the point of view was very unique at the time! And as you say since then there has been an influx of all sorts of interesting narrators so it doesn’t seem that shocking these days. I thought Susie’s voice was still brilliant though. 🙂
      That about sums up exactly how I feel too, I’m happy that you thought the same!

  10. I enjoyed this up until the whole possession bit… Then I got majorly creeped out! I quite fancy reading her other book though… I’ve seen that ones quite divisive as well.

    • I agree I didn’t take that bit, I think the end kind of ruined it for me. As I said in the review I get what Sebold was going for but it didn’t quite sit right with me! I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you ever do read her other book. 🙂

  11. I think I agree with pretty much everything that you’ve said! I read this years ago, probably around the time when it first came out, so I would have been 13-ish I think? Anyway, it’s quite an odd and disturbing choice for somebody in their teens!

    I think the story is a brave one and at times it hits the mark, especially during the horrible discussions of the murder and how the family deal with the grief. But yeah, overall, I was distinctly ‘meh’ at the quality. The topic is shocking so I think you remember it more for that rather than for good writing and a well plotted story. If I had a conversation about this book it would go something like: ‘What’s it about?’ ‘It’s narrated by a girl who is raped and murdered by a neighbour.’ ‘Oh! Is it good?’ ‘Erm, I don’t really recall much beyond those grim details to be honest.’

    I distinctly remember reading this book when I was in Cornwall on holiday and the ending gave me a ‘what the HELL?!’ face. Definitely. I think I read back over it twice in sheer disbelief.

    • Ohh yay, I’m glad! I got the general impression that you had mixed feeling about this book too from your comments on Goodreads, it’s definitely an odd little thing. Wow 13, that’s an interesting reading choice! I’m not sure what I would have thought about this book at that age. Hm, I wonder.

      Yes you’re completely right, Sebold made a brave choice with this story and in those moments when she gets it right her words have tremendous power. Unfortunately the novel is a bit patchy in places which lets the book down a little.
      That is very true, I think you’re right. When people ask me about this book years from now I’m sure it will be the basic concept that comes to the forefront of my mind above anything else, which is quite telling in itself.

      Aha! So it wasn’t only me. I must admit I reread it a few times too because I thought maybe I had read it wrong! The film changed the ending of the book slightly and for once I prefer their version. 🙂

  12. Pingback: The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge – Brit's Books

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