“It’s not you, it’s me” and Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones”–individuality of people, characters, and plots….

Sometimes literary hype is a friend of a novel or novelist, and more often it’s simply misleading, or is not a friend at all.  Everyone was telling me that I should read Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones, and the terms they chose to portray it in were definitely not the most accurate that could be chosen.  Well, I mean, what are you going to do, people give book recommendations often in the way they recommend you try a strange new cheese on the market:  everyone has their own tastes, and no cheese tastes the same to everyone, not even to people who like it.  But what puzzles me is the way the book was often described:  “It’s a novel about a murdered girl who comes back to lead people to her killer,” was the one that turned up most often.  Now, this sounded like a very inventive new way of investigating and invigorating the suspense novel, so even though I don’t read many suspense novels, I decided to read this one.  When I finally picked up a copy of it, my desire to read was (I recognize unfairly) strengthened by some of the reviewers who had given the book high marks:  Michiko Kakutani, writing for the New York Times, Anna Quindlen, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, et. al., et. al., et. al.

What I found instead was a fair-to-middling novel that roamed all over the fictional terrain of suspense without really settling down into a familiar pattern of the crime eventually being solved.  Oh, there is retribution of sorts, but I found myself reading a novel which couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it was a family drama, a suspense novel, a young adult’s story about heaven written for pre-teens, or something else entirely.  I found my interest lagging early on, and after half-way through, I had to force myself to keep reading.  Of course, I was thoroughly grateful for one thing which normally proves troublesome with a lot of first and even second or third novels if the writer isn’t well trained in revision or the editors are sleeping:  there were no real stylistic or grammatical errors of a major variety that I noticed.  Still, it was workmanlike without being craftsmanlike or artistic:  but it was vouched for by a lot of mature writers and reviewers all of whom presumably knew better than I did, so I kept reading until the end, determined to find out what it was which had sparked such a flurry of interest in so many.

I discovered that, in looking for a familiar pattern, I was looking for the wrong thing.  What this book is about is the individuality of people, and separately of characters, and of plots.  But I had to read the attached essay by Alice Sebold called “The Oddity of Suburbia” and the interview with her conducted by David Mehegan of the Boston Globe fully to appreciate these things, and also to become aware that Sebold’s earlier memoir of 1999, Lucky, which I had neither read nor heard of, was partially behind The Lovely Bones in backstory terms.

The earlier memoir apparently describes Sebold’s experience of being raped and her account of the circumstances attached and the conclusion (if one can ever assume that there is a conclusion to the experience of being raped, an experience of a sort one is not likely to be able to forget or easily put aside even momentarily).  And it was there, in the “Reading Group Guide” postscript to the novel that I was able to make a connection with the book, and recognize the substantial value that the book does have, not only as a promising first novel (though not Sebold’s first attempt at a published novel), but as a work which can shed the “promising first novel” designation and actually win recognition as a novel classified in general amongst other novels.  For, I myself went through the trauma of an attempted rape, and though I was able to escape, and though having done so I in all likelihood avoided what I’m sure must’ve been the far worse consequences of Sebold’s experience, the trauma is one which any woman or man must recognize as real and devastating, to say nothing of the fact that each experience is also an individual experience of pain and loss of some sort of innocent humanity for everyone who goes through it.

What threw me off about the book to start out with–and to be fair, the book does still drag a little, even though I’m looking back on it with more understanding now–is the sleight-of-hand Sebold pulls off by almost encouraging the reader to think that the book is about the murderer being brought to justice.  For, the book is really about the murdered girl’s family, friends, and neighbors (and I don’t think I have to issue a spoiler alert to tell my own readers this, because they will eventually be satisfied with what happens to the murderer, though it is almost “too little too late” in terms of the outrages he has perpetrated).  The most accurate and perceptive blurb of all the ones on the book cover or in the front of the book is thus that of Conan Putnam, writing for the Chicago Tribune, when he says “The Lovely Bones seems to be saying there are more important things in life on earth than retribution.  Like forgiveness, like love.”  Thus, following up what happens to those who remain behind is really of more moment than writing a suspense novel, and if I had had ahead of time Alice Sebold’s intriguing essay on the strange sameness of the suburbs in which people (and therefore also the characters in her novel) are full of individuality nevertheless, then the individuality of the plot wouldn’t have bothered me so.  And while I’m glad that the supplementary material in the book occurred where it did in the volume (after the text of the novel), I can’t help but speculate as to how the book would have held me had the essay been published as a foreword or introduction–maybe I wouldn’t have found myself getting impatient with the pace of the novel if I had known ahead of time that the dead girl’s family and friends were the real focus of the novel.

So now, whose fault is it that I’m still not thoroughly entranced with The Lovely Bones?  Is it the fault of the many people who led me to believe that I would be reading a suspense novel with a difference?  Is it the fault of the writer, who stubbornly refuses to commit to one subplot or another after beginning with a feint to the suspense plot?  Is it my own fault for ignoring so many of the reviewers who indicated quite clearly that “neighborhood tragedy” and “holding on and letting go” and “familial love and how it endures and changes over time” and “coming of age” were all subtopics of the novel?  As to that last possibility, I suppose I’ve just gotten in the habit of disregarding blurbs more often than not, unless I find after I’ve read the book that they are particularly pertinent, and all of these tag phrases are certainly part of what the novel is about.  I guess in the end I just have to say “The novel is well written, with no glaring grammatical or stylistic errors.  It has variety and surprises aplenty for the reader who is jaded with the average family novel or suspense novel or what-it’s-like-in-heaven supposition.  If you don’t read it, you’ll be missing something worth the time it takes to adjust to the pacing and perspective.  And if I’m not fully satisfied with you, The Lovely Bones, well then, it’s not you, it’s me; you leave me feeling a little out-of-sorts and wishing for a fuller revenge on the killer, at the same time as I’m wishing I could embrace any and all of the miracles in the book as they happen.”  And in this book, there are plenty of miracles for even the most quarrelsome of readers; I guess I’m just exceptionally obstreperous.

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6 responses to ““It’s not you, it’s me” and Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones”–individuality of people, characters, and plots….

  1. It’s a long time since I read this novel and I didn’t have the benefit of any secondary material, which may be why I don’t have particularly strong memories of it either way. What I do remember was that as a book group read it sparked a lot of discussion about the way in which the living sister reacted. One of our members had lost an elder sister at about the same age and she was scathing about that part of the novel. I would need to go back and read it again in the light of the additional material to comment about the strength of her response. Mind you, I suppose I do have to be worried about a book that doesn’t necessarily stand on its own without a supporting essay. How many people will actually find that and having found it take the trouble to read it?

    • Hi, Alex. Yes, thank you for your comments. To a certain extent, with all the violence against particularly women and children these days (but even against some men, too), it’s too easy for a writer to “preach to the choir” when it comes to indignation and revenge and etc. And there are two issues here: while Sebold has to some extent resisted the easy sell of simply preaching to the choir, there’s also the problem that because she has resisted and has not gone after the perpetrator in the book hammer and tongs, that people might feel bad about criticizing the less-than-stellar job she does telling the story–no one wants to be seen as a vindictive critic who doesn’t appreciate what the writer went through to write the book, her personal struggle with the issues involved, etc. (although according to the interview published with the book, Daniel Mendelsohn in the “New York Review of Books” panned it soundly. It really takes ovaries, so to speak, for a man to pan a book about a woman’s rape, facing off a whole society which approves of the book!). But you’re right, the essay, if it’s a tangential part of the novel and not a key component, can’t really justify the work, and if it’s a key component, I at least feel that it deserves a more central or primary position. The book lacks something, that’s all I can say, and it wouldn’t be so disappointing a lack if the book didn’t actually also have a lot to offer, too.

      • Now that really is an interesting thought, that what disappoints us most is the book that has in it that which indicates what it might have been. I suspect that this is true of many things in life, not the least human beings.

  2. I think you’re right about that. Mendelsohn’s comment, at least the part quoted in the book, seemed to take issue with the novel because it encouraged victimage, or pseudopsychological healing or something like that. Sebold, in response, simply said that she had her beliefs, that one of them was that we always have hope, and that if that made her disgusting, then she accepted that. Whatever else she did or did not do, she stuck to her guns.

  3. I appreciated and enjoyed this review and response. I think your implication is correct that the novel has gotten somewhat of a pass because of Lucky. It’s probably also being used in some high school and college classes because of the movie, so these things take on a life of their own. This sounds a cut above, in this regard, to The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

    • Thank you, Richard. I haven’t seen the movie, but I am familiar with the phenomenon of cult followings of books that were made into movies. I have yet to investigate “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” so I’ll take your word for it that it has something lacking, and if and when I get around to it, I’ll thus be already armed with a steady opinion to ground me.

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