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Hype Be Damned

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones

At a reading in town this summer, Alice Sebold remarked, "If there are any first-time novelists out there, I would hate me now." It got a big laugh and everyone knew why: The Lovely Bones is one of the most-hyped books this year, with some critics comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird and Good Morning America selecting it as their August book-club pick.

The torrent of publicity made hay of the age-old Cinderella story of a first-time novelist racing up the bestseller list and staying there for weeks on end. I guess I'd hate her too if a) She had an "about time someone noticed!" attitude like Jonathan Franzen, or b) The book didn't deserve it. She doesn't and it does.

The Lovely Bones is told from the point of view of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered by a neighbor and now keeps an eye on her family from heaven. The oldest of three children, Susie has left behind two or three close friends who don't know quite what to say to her parents and instead find solace in one another.

Susie can appear in brief visions to her family and friends, even to her killer, but this isn't a novel about angels, the afterlife or even a horrible crime. "The lovely bones" are connections "sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, often magnificent" the living made with each other in order to fill the hole left behind by the dead. This is a story of sorrow and the erratic nature of healing from it.

We meet each of the important people in Susie's life at different stages of their recovery. Her parents spend much of their time grieving, the father consumed with finding the killer and the mother contemplating an affair, less out of lust than fear of living the rest of her life as the mother of a murdered daughter. Her siblings cope as best they can, her little brother with anger, her sister with achievement. Friends and old crushes swim in and out of the picture, each a delicate thread the family uses to reconstruct itself.

The narrative pads back and forth in time yet somehow you remember the outline of the faces, like family members at a funeral. Though Susie is the omniscient narrator, each character is still given room to be complete. Even the murderous next door neighbor receives enough care to emerge as a deeply troubled man instead of simply a convenient villain.

Since the novel consists almost entirely of Susie peering into the hearts of the living, it could have easily been ruined by showing off (saturated visions of heaven and the superpowers of the dead) or laying on sentimentality with a spatula (My Daughter Is Gone, this week on Lifetime), but Alice Sebold is too smart a writer for that. In rapid succession, she paints a heaven from just a few impressionistic strokes, leaving the rest to our imaginations.

My father used to say that there's no right way to mourn someone, that something as personal as grief has to be experienced in a way that works for the individual. That bit of ideology envelopes the heart of The Lovely Bones like a thin membrane: We grieve how we must, no matter how cruel or confusing it seems to those around us. It's the only way we make out of our long nights of sorrow into the faint morning of healing. It's not an easy message going down, but one ultimately lit from the inside with hope.

Lest The Lovely Bones seem like just a series of wise choices, a novel rolled out rather than crafted, Sebold's prose simply takes your breath away. Her language is plain, yet perfectly chosen; the novel seems to be almost phantom-like, as vivid as a nightmare, and yet somehow just beyond the reach of our understanding. It's that good.

When I closed the book, even with all the hype, all I had to say was, "How absolutely lovely."

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold
Little Brown & Company; ISBN: 0316666343
Hardcover: 288 pages (June 2002)

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