Going to 'The Lovely Bones' in search of its huge success

On Books

August 25, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

At last count, 925,000 copies of The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, 328 pages, $21.95) were in print, a performance characterized in the authoritative Publishers Weekly as having "outpaced the sales of any other first novel in memory. . . . The book hit #1 on Amazon.com six weeks before its publication date" -- which was July 3.

All of this was news to me. I did not read the pre-publication galley proofs nor did I assign the book to another reviewer. So, last week I decided to read it myself.

Sebold, almost unknown until last month, is 39 and lives in California. Since The Lovely Bones' success, her only other book, Lucky, a memoir about being raped -- which was well received but not commercially successful -- has been scheduled for reissue in hardcover and paperback. Bones was enthusiastically reviewed and marketed hard by its publisher and major chain stores.

It begins with Susie Salmon describing how she had been murdered in 1973, when she was 14, by a neighbor who lured her into his underground hideaway in a snowy cornfield. She tells of being raped and dismembered. She goes to heaven, where her "intake counselor," Franny, informs her she can observe everything in the world, but cannot intervene. Her sympathies are with her parents, siblings and other grievers. The narrative voice is crisp, brisk, cheery, and appropriate to a 14 year old. The book is set in Norristown, suburban Philadelphia, where the author grew up.

From the outset, this book demands a mighty suspension of disbelief. Any reader will have to accept unreservedly the fantasy premise -- a fully conscious afterlife that is pleasant and quite mundane. Otherwise the whole thing would be ridiculous, abysmally contrived. Only magic could save this story.

The magic is there -- at least enough magic to mesmerize me into Sebold's improbable tale.

The book moves on with compelling audacity. No one wants to die. Death is the incomprehensible mystery that all religions have risen to supercede. Contemplating it is the ultimate anxiety. But here, each afterlife meets the dead person's unique needs. "Heaven wasn't perfect," Susie says, "But I came to believe that if I watched closely and desired, I might change the lives of those I loved on Earth."

This device is a sure reader-winner: If the plot is emotionally accepted, then nobody ever disappears. Immortality! Death's a painless move to where there's ready advice, good company, good will.

The murder mystery unfurls in a wondrously contrarian way. All but a small bit of Susie's body is never found. Because Susie, the narrator, knows everything, so does the reader. But the family, the police, all others but the perpetrator do not.

This is obviously the work of a technically masterful, accomplished writer. Reflecting on Susie's monitoring of still-living friends and schoolmates, Sebold examines and relates the experience of childhood, of adolescence -- of life -- with extraordinarily clear, unflinching candor. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a novel about love -- the mystery, the power, the utter centrality of love among a family, as the defining need of very individual life.

The book is consistently funny, with a gentle tone of playfulness, of the joy of words and the serendipities of life. Sebold writes with often brilliant deftness: Describing Susie's father's response to a diffident but sympathetic neighbor woman, she writes that he asked her to stay "because part of him wanted more of her, this cold woman who was not exactly cold, this rock who was not stone."

The father's suspicions of the murderer's identity -- his intuitive but unprovable certainty -- increase the plot's intensity. The tensions within the family are high, and go higher.

A sense of dread hangs over all, and in elegantly woven, tight episodes, horrific suspense is developed.

Then everyone settles down, Susie reflects: "These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections -- sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent -- that happened after I was gone. ... The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life."

Proceeding over about seven years, the narrative voice becomes more sophisticated. Then, somewhere well after midway, the book begins to plod. Slowly, the lines of tension, the flashes of courage and the humane insights that had sustained it weaken.

The emotional energy, the artfulness, that had made it possible to suspend disbelief flags and finally falls. The magic dies. I found the last 50 pages of the book so painful in their crescendo of sentimental predictability that when the very end came -- a flutter of the most saccharinely angelic of Hallmark's cards -- I was well prepared for the disappointment.

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