by Julia Sneden
The Lovely Bones
a novel by Alice Sebold, 328pp
Little, Brown & Company
It seems more than eerie, after this summer of missing and murdered children, that one of summer's most heavily hyped books was a novel narrated by a dead fourteen-year-old girl named Susie Salmon who was raped and murdered by a neighbor.
Horrendous as the crime was, it is not the true subject of the book. It is described in a matter of fact manner in the first chapter, but the real subjects are its ramifications for Susie (in heaven) and her family.
Susie describes her heaven as a place where one is given one's simplest dreams. It is peopled with others whose dreams are similar, a place not unlike the high school she was scheduled to attend before her murder. Her "intake counselor," Franny, is a woman old enough to be her mother, and it finally occurs to Susie that of course mothering was something she needed and wanted.
"Walk the paths," Franny says, "and you'll find what you need." And indeed as Susie and her roommate Holly explore, they find things like "an ice cream shop where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one ever (says), 'It's seasonal.'"
The one thing Susie wants most is the one thing she can't have: her murderer dead and herself living.
Susie wants to be allowed to grow up, something that her death has made impossible because people grow up by living. Eventually, however, she figures out that if she watches closely, she may be able to share or change the lives of those she loved on earth.
The rest of the book delineates the life of her family and friends, and the profound effect her death has on all of them. Susie is present for us as commentator, and for them as memory. The family dynamics are complex and powerful, and utterly believable. Her parents' pain is rendered so vividly that it hurts to read about it.
Eventually there is a kind of growing up for Susie, as she moves toward a new kind of heaven. There are also resolutions for her family as they learn to deal with her death and go on with their lives.
The writing in this book is spare and true and often quite beautiful even as it describes horrific events. The powers of love and family connection transcend even the saddest moments, and Susie's spunk and determination keep self-pity at bay.
This reviewer could have lived without the obligatory coming-of-age sex scene where Susie's best friend channels her and has sex with her old boyfriend, but in the long run, that's a matter of personal taste. It's not that it's objectionable so much as it is simply (in my view) not necessary.
This is the kind of book you will want to buy for yourself, when you have time to sequester yourself and have a long read. It's not something you'll want to pick up and put down frequently.