With esteemed authors Jonathan Franzen, Anna Quindlen and Michael Chabon unabashedly singing its praises, Alice Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones promises a lot. Despite such aggrandizement in all the right literary circles (more than assuring its rapid-fire bestsellerdom) Sebold’s tale of the understanding and acceptance of life and death, though at times elegant and realistic, fails to live up to the hype.
And, it was a whole lot better when it was called Ghost.
Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old high school girl is raped and murdered in a makeshift cave by her neighbor, her elbow being all that remains of her lithe prepubescent body. Susie tells her story from Heaven, overseeing her family, friends and neighborhood at large, as she examines and analyzes the effects such a gruesome event has on those around her.
Sebold pulls no punches, describing Susie’s further desperation, as she watches her sister and a school friend growing up, finding comfort in boys who become men, as they themselves are shaped by time into beautiful young women. She watches her mother betray her grieving and reclusive father, before moving across country out of the lives of her family entirely. She even watches her killer as he dodges every possible bullet in evading suspicion. This ultra-realism in the beginning of the story is refreshing as Sebold refuses to make anything light or happy for the sake of the reader.
Unfortunately, three-quarters of the way through the story, loose ends are rapidly tied up to construct an unrealistic fairytale ending. Suddenly, mom’s back, dad’s well, Grandma’s giving up the juice, sister’s engaged to a great guy, and Susie’s high school friend Ruth, and sweetheart Ray are best friends. All this over-sentimentality and sappy happy families reassurance achieves is the complete invalidation of the pain and horror the family experience following Susie’s death.
Susie is also content with her version of Heaven (according to Susie, everyone’s version is different), able to pop in on her family from time to time while she waltzes in the Great Upstairs with her long-dead Grandpa. In Sebold’s version of the Afterlife, murdered 14-year-old girls are given the chance to experience the fundamentals of womanhood with help from their psychic friends.
Susie’s entering the body of Ruth to make love to the charmingly closeted Ray is not the only feature of The Lovely Bones that is reminiscent of Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990). This extremely popular movie is also told from the perspective of the murdered protagonist Sam (Patrick Swayze), who also receives help from his fellow dead, and often just sits around his old apartment watching is grieving girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore), much like Susie does with her family. In fact, so often does The Lovely Bones parallel Ghost that one might almost suspect Sebold of channeling Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin as she wrote the book.
Sebold, whose own brutal rape was documented in 1999’s Lucky, has an obvious grasp of language, and the poetics work very well in the beginning of Susie’s story. The character is exquisitely rendered, quietly desperate, passionately protecting her family while longing to tell them how much they need each other, how much she loves and misses them.
However, the author’s often beautiful writing style and ability to construct decent dialogue in the middle of thought-provoking and realistic situations is not enough to save the book from its hastily conceived and cheesy ending. The very last line of the book is enough to make you gag on the taffy taste already flooding the inside of your mouth. The book is ultimately disappointing, wrapping up the whole embarrassingly familiar tale in far too neat a package. Ultimately, in giving Susie the perfect kind of closure, she leaves the reader with none.