The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
What the Back of the Book Has to Say:
"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. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer."
This is Susie Salmon, speaking to us from heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counsellors to help newcomers to adjust, and friends to room with. Everything she wants appear as soon as she thinks of it -- except the thing she wants most: to be back with the people she loved on Earth.
From heaven, Susie watches. She sees her happy suburban family implode after her death, as each member tries to come to terms with the terrible loss. 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.
The Lovely Bones is a luminous and astonishing novel about life and death, forgiveness and vengeance, memory and forgetting. It is, above all, a novel which finds light in the darkest of places, and shows how even when that light seems to be utterly extinguished, it is still there, waiting to be rekindled.
Why I Picked It Up:
I had started reading it when it first came out but never finished it. I felt like I should give it another go.
What I Think:
I very vividly remember when The Lovely Bones came out originally, back in 2002. This was during a strange period in my middle school years where, when my mother went for a walk or to the grocery store or pretty much anywhere while I was alone in the house, I would find whatever book she was reading and start reading it myself. This, I suppose, wasn't entirely strange but I had made it a game to try and read the whole book before my mother figured out what I was doing. This meant no bookmark, only reading when home alone and just generally being very sneaky. I'm pretty sure I got about halfway through a James Patterson and my mother finally caught me during A Child Called It. Somewhere in between, I read the first fifty or so pages of The Lovely Bones.
Those few pages really stuck with me, especially as I decided after them that I wasn't going to read any more. Although I was only twelve, I was a very precocious reader and the thought of me simply putting down a book because I was a little turned off by it still strikes me as odd. I usually stick through books to the bitter end, whether I like them or not (see Doctor Zhivago). To think that I consciously decided not to read anymore seemed strange to me as I glanced at the cover at the library. Surely it was time to try again.
As I'm sure you know, The Lovely Bones is the story of the murder of a young girl, Susie Salmon, in a small town during the seventies. The twist is that the story is told through Susie's eyes, as she watches her family from heaven, seeing them try and pick up the pieces, solve her murder and get on with their lives.
To be honest, once I got past the first hundred or so pages this time around, the book took a few turns I wasn't expecting. Perhaps it's the number of mysteries and cop shows I watch but I expected a large part of the novel to center on the case itself, to catching the man who killed Susie. While that certainly is an important part, it is definitely not the main focus.
This is a character piece, a story of Susie watching her little sister become the woman she could never be, of her mother running away from her problems and her father being devoured by them. Instead of focusing on the six or so months after Susie dies, the novel follows the family for years, as they attempt to move on and Susie stays forever the same.
Reading Sebold's version of heaven really is a delight. She has created a kind of afterlife that feels real and comfortable and like the kind of heaven one would want to go to. It doesn't fall into that "heaven might be boring" stereotype, but instead has roommates and neighbors and the kind of place you would want to be. Susie's heaven looks like a seventies high school. It's pitch perfect.
When I finished the novel, I finally realized why I must have put it down all those years ago. While it's certainly true that I was around Susie's age when I was reading it and yes, I didn't really understand a lot of the scenarios going on in the novel, I don't think that was why I couldn't get through it. No, to me, it was the simple thought that there was no way this book could have a happy ending.
Now, I'm not saying that I require everything I read to have a happy ending. I have just come to realize that I need the possibility of a happy ending, the hope that the characters can make it out or else I spend the entire book in agony since I know there is certainly no hope (which is another reason I get stressed out at zombie and apocalypse films). To me, Susie was already dead and in heaven; there was no way this book could end happily.
And okay, no, the ending wasn't what a twelve year old Molly would call happy. Susie is still dead and over ten years have passed for her family. But twenty three year old Molly can appreciate the sense of closure, the journey her family went on and the sense of moving on that only comes with time. To be honest, it still left a bit of an uneasy feeling in my stomach, probably because I'm still young and don't like to think of death like that. But I understand it and that's why I can appreciate this novel for what it is: a brilliant character piece on death and moving on.