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Recent Reading: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold - Mo's Journal
July 28th, 2008
10:53 am

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Recent Reading: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
I read this book on the recommendation of my youngest child. My eldest (shown in the icon, reading to his little cousin) disdainfully commented on me reading what he referred to as "a tear jerker for eighth grade girls." His little sister is, indeed, an eighth grade girl and she loved the book (and cried a few tears). I OTOH am well past eighth grade and also loved it (for somewhat different reasons) and also cried (at somewhat different scenes). Having read it and thought about it, I've concluded that Sebold's The Lovely Bones is very much an adult book, in spite of its popularity with adolescents.

The novel tells the story of what happens to one family after their fourteen-year-old daughter is raped and murdered, and it's told in the person of the dead girl, Susie, narrating from heaven. And I know that sounds melodramatic and insipid and the dark side of It's a Wonderful Life, all at the same time. But as executed the book is none of those things. It's a complex and affecting story of parental love and tragedy, of family relationships and the slow disintegration that sometimes occurs after a traumatic event, as well as the abiding love that remains. The characters are beautifully drawn and believable and they show real growth and real flaws. The novel is not sentimental but it's also not detached. It feels like reading the real emotions of real people. The parents make mistakes, including the all too common one of focusing their attention on the dead to the neglect of the living. The other children in the family ache and grow and develop and rebel in moving, realistic, never maudlin ways.

I think the appeal of the book for kids is somewhat different from its appeal to adults. I related to the book as a parent, wanting to protect my kids, knowing I can't always. And I related to the book as someone who grew up in a family over-focused on one child's tragic event to the detriment of the other children. I related to the interplay in the town, thought of families I knew growing up who became notorious for some awful thing that had happened to them and thought about how little I knew about who they really were beyond the one horrible event. All of that made the book come alive to me, and the device of it being told posthumously by the dead girl facilitated all of that.

The device does something else for kids, though, I think. Because Susie is forever 14, she remains easy for the children reading the book to relate to, even as all the other characters grow and develop. And as she sits in heaven watching her siblings and other kids grow up, I think the author captures a poignancy that kids at this age often feel, a sense that the world is rushing by while they are standing still. Susie will never be an adult, never go to college, never fall in love and have sex. I think a lot of 14-year-olds feel like that, even as they know it isn't true for them. For adults reading this lovely novel, I think the focus will be on the family and an the interrelationships. For kids of Susie's age, I think the focus is Susie herself.

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From:kosiah
Date:July 28th, 2008 03:27 pm (UTC)
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And for the author, I think the book is a good example of literary conceit.

There's one idea and she runs with it, creates a best-selling novel out of it, but I didn't find much substance behind any of that. I really didn't like the book, although I can see what you're saying about how adolescents would relate to it. And I'm not sure that's a good thing, considering the subject matter, if this book enters the pantheon of "Bell Jar", "Catcher in the Rye", "Lord of the Flies" adolescent death-fiction for the modern age, which just enough plot from CSI to seem topical.

I liked "Peony in Love" by Lisa See a lot more, and it uses the same kind of plot device -- just the setting and the characters seem more developed and less like a creative writing class exercise. Or maybe they're just more exotic... but in any case, I recommend checking that one out.
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From:mofic
Date:July 28th, 2008 03:40 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the recommendation, but it's not a plot device I'm particularly interested in - I just like what she did with it in this book.
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From:talktooloose
Date:July 28th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
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Amy Tan's most recent novel was narrated by a character who dies at the beginning, too.

There's also a recent British novel I heard about wherein the afterlife looks awfully like the grimy industrial town in which the protagonist spent most of her life. Unfortunately, I don't know the author or the title, though I'd like to read it.

I'm reading "Casanova in Balzano" by Sandor Marai, a Hungarian author who was only really discovered after his death 1989. Very focussed, well-observed and funny. Full of questioning on how one lives one's life, whether one has made the right choices, and whether they were really choices to begin with.

Meanwhile, I got an excellent beta from KD and I'm cleaning up 23, to be posted soon.
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From:cheryln
Date:July 28th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
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I related to the book as a parent, wanting to protect my kids, knowing I can't always.

I read this book for the first time before Toni was born, and have read it after becoming a parent. And it was a completely different book to me.
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From:mofic
Date:July 28th, 2008 04:03 pm (UTC)
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I'll bet! Have you read The Deep End of the Ocean? It has some similarities in theme.
From:thelastgoodname
Date:July 28th, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
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How interesting -- when I read it, it never occurred to me that 14-year-olds would find it a good read, or even that they'd ever come across it. (A tear-jerker, yeah, but for eighth graders? Not so much.) I wasn't 14 when I read it, and I'm not a parent, so I have no idea what either of your reactions were like, but I agree about the real emotions of real people reading experience. My experience reading was from the position of a child whose family never fell apart but was certainly never going to be functional and the difficulty of coming to terms with the fact that you can't save the people you love. That we've all gotten such different things from the book -- things that I think are all there to be found -- leads me to think that Sebold has done something rather extraordinary with this book.

The literary device I read as an interesting experiment in a narrator who doesn't change observing a world that does change -- it's very different from a narrator who is herself changed by the events of a story. The resonance with people who are themselves feeling like their change is never going to happen -- well, I guess I'm lacking imagination. Or contact with 14-year-olds.
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From:mofic
Date:July 28th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)
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How interesting -- when I read it, it never occurred to me that 14-year-olds would find it a good read, or even that they'd ever come across it.

That's funny - I don't think I ever would have heard of the book if not for having a kid in middle school. It is a *very* popular book with adolescents. There are a number of books like that - ones that weren't written as "YA" books particularly but are hugely popular with the 12-17 set. Another one is Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper (which I also read at Zara's recommendation).

That we've all gotten such different things from the book -- things that I think are all there to be found -- leads me to think that Sebold has done something rather extraordinary with this book.

Yes, I agree.
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From:libgirl
Date:July 29th, 2008 12:59 am (UTC)
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I actually listened to this book on tape back when it first came out and while it's not terribly graphic, I have to say I'm rather surprised that it's at all popular with adolescents. ~boggles a little~

It was an interesting book and if you're familiar with her non-fiction "Lucky," then you'll know that the topic is rather close to home for her. I didn't love the book, although I found some things, her envisioning of the afterlife for example, to be interesting.

I agree with your final points as well. :D
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From:mofic
Date:July 29th, 2008 10:29 am (UTC)
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I didn't know anything about the memoir and neither did Zara. Thanks for the info!
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From:libgirl
Date:July 29th, 2008 09:58 pm (UTC)
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One caveat about "Lucky" which is that I found some parts of it to be rather graphic and while it's well-written, it deals frankly with rape and how that affects the survivor. It lacks the gentle lyricism that is so present in much of "The Lovely Bones."

It was a hard read for me, but books like that always are and it may just have been my own issues that made it hard for me. ;)

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From:mofic
Date:July 29th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the warnings. I wasn't planning on giving it to my daughter to read, in case you were concerned. I read a little bit about it and it actually doesn't sound like a book I'd be that interested in reading, but I was very interested in knowing about it, just for its connection to the one I read. So thanks again for telling me about it.
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From:libgirl
Date:July 29th, 2008 11:55 pm (UTC)
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I wasn't necessarily meaning your daughter, but I'm glad anyway. I was in my early twenties when I read it and I know I put it down and picked up it up a dozen times before I could finish it. Then again, I read "A Tale of Two Cities" when I was 11. It's all about the person and what they can/can't handle and in which contexts.

I just wanted to throw it out that there that I wasn't necessarily endorsing the book, but that for me the two of them are intertwined. :)

I've missed talking to you. :)
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From:mofic
Date:July 30th, 2008 12:09 am (UTC)
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I've missed talking to you. :)

Likewise. I feel out of touch with my lj friends.

Are you heading this way any time soon?
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From:libgirl
Date:July 30th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC)
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I'll be up there for about two and a half to three days at the end of August. Specifically 8/22-8/24. I don't know how much free time I'll have as the trip is specifically to move chrisrin in. Depending on my life and finances, I'm thinking of making another trip up around 8/29-8/31. It's hard to know. That's her b'day weekend though and she's really down about being alone (again) on her b'day in strange city where she isn't going to know anyone.

I just don't know too much yet.

I do know that depending on what shakes out for me--I'll be up that way a fair bit in the next two years and surely we can work something out!!! :D
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From:mofic
Date:July 30th, 2008 11:10 am (UTC)
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Well let me know when your plans coalesce. I will be around that weekend but getting ready for vacation on 8/25. And yeah, if not that time, I'm sure we'll get together another time.
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From:libgirl
Date:August 19th, 2008 11:55 pm (UTC)
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As it stands right now, we're coming up on the 22nd, movign her in and I'm heading home on the 24th. What with the moving and all I don't know much visiting time we'll have.

I'm also planning right now to come back up on the 30th and go home either the 1st or the 2nd. (Probably the 1st.)

There might be a chance in there to have lunch or some such.

Otherwise I know for sure that I plan to be back in Oct. or Nov. :D

Now that my sis is there NYC is going to have to prepare for me to visit every 2-5 months. LOL.
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From:mofic
Date:August 20th, 2008 01:41 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I don't think it will work this time. I'm on vacation (and out of town) from 8/25-9/1 inclusive, and back at work on 9/2 figuring out what went on while I was gone, so unlikely to have a social lunch. But since you'll be here regularly we will have other chances.
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From:libgirl
Date:August 20th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
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It's too bad it won't work out this time, but yes, of course, I'm sure we'll catch one another another time. :D
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From:lilacsigil
Date:July 29th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
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I found the description of heaven really creepy and fascinating, and I loved that Susie (and other recently dead people) were still so attached to their lives and yet utterly separated in time and being. I read it semi-accidentally - it had been very hyped here as OMG GRUESOME! which rather put me off, and I happened to pick it up one day in a bookshop while waiting for my girlfriend and really liked the prose, so I bought it. I would very much have liked this kind of book as a teenager, I think!
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From:mofic
Date:July 29th, 2008 10:31 am (UTC)
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I loved that Susie (and other recently dead people) were still so attached to their lives and yet utterly separated in time and being.

Yeah, I liked that, too.
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