on June 7, 2004
I really wanted to like 'The Lovely Bones', but I honestly don't know how this book managed to get the rave reviews that it did. I was very disappointed.
The concept is interesting, but hardly groundbreaking: Murdered girl's spirit watches as her family slowly comes to terms with her death, and people hunt for her killer. Hmm - haven't we seen this plot before, in the film 'Ghost'? I also seem to remember reading Narinder Dhami's 'Angel Face' some years back, which dealt with a similar theme. (I thoroughly recommend 'Angel Face', by the way. It's for young adults, but it's an excellent read.)
Nevertheless, the opening chapters of 'The Lovely Bones' are promising. The initial portrayal of a family trying to assimilate the news that their daughter has been killed is very believable, as are the efforts on the part of the murderer to disguise his tracks. The actions of the police officers are also believably frustrating, as they come painstakingly close to solving the mystery - only to be misled once again. I also liked the depiction of the small town which formed the backdrop for the 'earth' part of the story. Sebold really demonstrated the way in which an entire town can be rocked by the death of one child. The reports of the murders of the ten-year-old Soham school-girls were still fresh in my mind as I read this book, adding extra poignancy to the text.
So, when does it go wrong? Well, for starters, I was never really satisfied by the depiction of heaven. Unfortunately, heaven is a theological construct and to place it in a less-religious context raises awkward questions. Sebold never explains what heaven is for, whom it is for, why the characters do what they do, etc. If this was a comedic novel (as Angel Face is), none of this would matter. However, because the book is serious, the questions really should be addressed properly. Instead, the reader is delivered the childish notion of heaven as being a place which is accessible to almost everyone; a place where wishes come true. It's all right, but the concept itself could have been explored more.
Perhaps more importantly, about halfway through the book the narrative begins to lose its way. The characters become less and less credible. The plot becomes far-fetched to the point of being ridiculous. A great writer can invite their reader to take great leaps of imagination and can make it seem as though nothing is out of the ordinary. Sebold can do this to a certain extent, but details let the writing down.
Would a father, for example, truly encourage his second daughter to break into the house of the man whom he suspects of murdering his first daughter? Would it not go against every paternal instinct in his body? And although I understand that 90% of parents split up after the murder of a child, I cannot believe that Susie's mother would have an affair with the detective assigned to the case. Rather, I cannot believe that the detective would have an affair with Susie's mother. Even small-town officers, I am sure, are trained to cope with the emotions of a distraught parent. It's just not credible. Similarly, the character of Ruth also rings hollow. Another reviewer on here notes that she turns into a Sixth-Sense-style, 'I-See-Dead-People' kind of figure, and I have to say that I agree with this analysis. A lot of work needs to be taken to flesh out that sort of character, and I'm not sure that enough was.
My biggest single problem with the plot, however, was Susie's leap into Ruth's body. First of all, it was a borrowing from numerous other stories including 'Ghost', and even the 'Point Horror' novels. Secondly, there was nothing in the narrative which led up to the event. In other words it was a poorly-executed cliché, seemingly contrived in order to allow Susie to have sex. Which leads me to: Susie's Sex Scene. Now, let's just think about this for a minute.
Susie died in the 1970s at the age of 14. It is now eight years later, but ultimately she hasn't aged. *She is still 14*. By the time she dies she has shared a single kiss with Ray, and her one sexual encounter has been the brutal rape she endured before her murder. This is her first experience back in a human body, and it's also her first time in a woman's body, rather than the girl's body she is used to. Nor is she is expecting the transition from the spiritual to the physical world. On top of all this, the body she enters isn't even her own. Meanwhile, Ray, hanging out with his friend Ruth, suddenly discovers that Ruth is actually his long-dead friend Susie, who's popped down from heaven to say hello. They say hello...and then immediately proceed to have sex, which is perfect and mindblowing; complete with all the adult emotions of a perfectly-balanced, well-adjusted couple. At no point does Ray ask Susie about her murderer, and Susie makes no attempt to reveal the truth about her death. It is here that the novel loses its last shred of credibility.
The final chapter redeems the book to a certain extent. Haunting passages draw the novel to a close, and Sebold ties up the loose ends quite nicely. Mr. Harvey is also taken care of, at last!
It's such a shame that this novel falls apart so badly in the middle (for this reader, at least). The opening chapters had me hooked, but unfortunately they could not sustain the entire book. Disappointing.