The Lovely Bones
Little, Brown and Company :: 2002 :: Hardcover :: 328 pp. :: $21.95
I assume most people remember when this book was all the rage with the book-club crowd. I saw so many people reading it and heard it recommended by so many of my classmates in high school; Oprah loved it; even Seventeen magazine, which I subscribed to for years, carried an excerpt in its glossy pages. For those who don't know yet, it's a novel narrated by a murdered child named Susie Salmon who looks down from heaven onto the people she left behind. The hype, combined with the prose of the excerpt, which was a little too precious for my tastes, made me completely unappetized by the idea of ever reading it.
But then I went shopping last weekend and, in the middle of a Victoria's Secret dressing room, found a slightly-beaten-up copy of The Lovely Bones sitting on the dressing room table. It said "Not Lost -- Free!" on a Post-It on the front, and was apparently a Book Crossing book. My roommate had once found one, so I knew that it was a sort of system where people leave books in public places for the next person to pick up, read, and pass on. The website keeps track of every book's comings and goings.
There's something delicious and romantic about finding an unexpected book left behind as if just for you. In a crowded store with an impatient line for the dressing rooms, the woman who had left it there somehow got out of the dressing room at a moment my back was turned, so I never saw her. I was excited about my magical find for days, although most of my friends, being less fetishistic than I am about their books, didn't really get why I found it so cool (hopefully some readers of this blog will!).
So I read the book, and to my surprise, I found it absorbing. The concept is original, and the execution is, though trite in exactly the ways you'd expect from a book set in heaven, still graceful. Susie, of course, is one of those schizoid child narrators you find in literature, with frequent deep insights into human nature and excellent vocabulary and poetic syntax, but with random interludes of naivete and simplicity thrown in there to remind you she's a child. She watches her parents' marriage suffer from her death, watches her sister and brother grow up deeply marked by her absence, watches her murderer and her childhood sweetheart and a young woman from her school grow up in the shadow of her murder. The first part of the novel is often moving while it deals with grief, but the end sprawls out over years and meanders to a resolution far too tidy for such a story.
If Sebold had, perhaps, focused more on Lindsey, Susie's slightly-younger sister, who hardens herself in reaction to the murder, I would have enjoyed it more. Dead!Susie's relationship to her sister is part envy, part passionate identification: Lindsey is a kind of surrogate life, the only one of the two who gets to grow up, so Susie follows her through her coming-of-age. "I roved where she roved," Susie says; "in watching her I found I could get lost more than with anyone else." The strange, asymmetrical relationship between the longing Susie and the scarred Lindsey strikes at the heart of sibling-hood in a unique way.
But Lindsey's story is interwoven with those of other characters, most of which I found boring and cliched. I thought that the "miraculous event" promised by the book jacket was hokey, and that for the last 100 pages or so it seemed the novel was simply wandering around in search of an ending (which, when found, was imbued with too much sense of its own meaningful-ness to be effective).
In Summary: I was right to expect that it wasn't my kind of book, but am glad I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Now I'm off to leave it at Darwin's, my favorite hippie sandwich place in Cambridge. Maybe Ben 'n' Jen will find it!