Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES (spoilers likely)

Well, we’ve had a pretty good discussion in another thread about Philip Pullman’s **His Dark Materials ** trilogy. Since a new week is upon us, so I thought I’d bring up a new book to discuss: by Alice Sebold.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Bones tells the story of Suse Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who is murdered on December 6, 1973. (I’m not spoilering that because the fact of her murder is the first thing revealed in Chapter 1.) Susie is only alive for the first few pages of the book; for the bulk of the story she is in a very imperfect Heaven, looking down on those she loves: her mother, her father, her one-year-younger sister Lindsey, her ten-years-younger brother Buckley, her grandmother, and the only boy she’s ever kissed, Ray. In addition she watches the lives of Ruth, whose body her ghost passed through as it made the transition from Earth to Heaven. Finally she watches Detective Federman, the police officer investigating her murder, and Mr. Harvey, the neighbor who rapes and kills her. (Again I’m not spoiler-spacing things you can’t avoid finding out in the first chapter or on the dust jacket.)

It took me a long time to get into this book. Primarily that was because the very quick synopsis I read in the newspaper (it was on the best-seller list for months) made it sound like an inspirational work, and those, in general, tend to suck eggs. (There’s probably a thousand Mitch Alboms and Tim LaHayes for every C. S. Lewis & Madeleine L’Engle.) Partly it was because the book itself was slow-going. But I something kept drawing me back to the story: something alluring, almost hypnotic, in the tale of grief and healing, hate and love, that Sebold was telling. None of the characters – not even Mr. Harvey – were entirely evil or repulsive; none of the characters – not even the grieving parents – were entirely good or wise.

As I said above, it took me a while to get through the book – sort of. I spent a year getting through the first 50 pages, but I devoured the next two hundred in a day.

Anyway, that’s me. I hope to hear from more of you. Here’s a few points for discussion, which I will spoiler-space:

  1. Overall, how convincing did you find the device of having Suse act as omniscient narrator? Did you believe she was giving an accurate report of the thoughts & feelings of the living characters, or were you dubious of her accuracy?

  2. Were you satisfied with the manner of Mr. Harvey’s death at the end of the book? Did it suit your sense of justice? Do you believe Susie had anything to do with it, or is that just wishful thinking?

  3. Why do you think Susie’s Heaven is so imperfect? (I have my own thoughts, but I’ll wait to see if anyone else is interested before I put my two cents in.) Is the unsatisfying nature of her Heaven due to its own nature, or Susie’s perceptions?

  4. Does Mrs. Salmon remain sympathetic despite her affair with Detective Fenerman? Does Mr. Salmon remain sympathetic despite his appropriating Susie’s memory all to himself (if you feel he did that)?

  5. Do your own experiences with grief dovetail with those of the characters in this story?

  6. How do you think Lindsey’s relationship with Samuel is affected by her grief for her sister? Were you offended or vexed by her early loss of her virginity to him (she was only 14, just Susie’s age, when they first made love)?

  7. Do you think more should have been done to develop Buckley’s character? Do you think his choice of using Susie’s old clothes in his garden was arbitrary or not?

Those are the thoughts that occur to me now. Feel free to answer as few or as many as you wish, and to add your own.

I listened to the audiobook on a long drive and really enjoyed it. It’s been a few years, so I may not remember everything perfectly. The first part, describing her rape and murder, is disturbing–as it should be–but it doesn’t feel ‘gratuitous’ in any way. I like how the book shows each member of the family (as well as some of Susie’s friends) dealing with grief in their own way.

To address a couple of your points:

  1. Overall, how convincing did you find the device of having Suse act as omniscient narrator? Did you believe she was giving an accurate report of the thoughts & feelings of the living characters, or were you dubious of her accuracy?

I didn’t feel as though she were coloring the narrative with any irrational or unexplained bias. You can definitely feel her love for her family, and her soft spot for Ray. And, as you point out, Mr. Harvey is not portrayed as completely evil.
2. Were you satisfied with the manner of Mr. Harvey’s death at the end of the book? Did it suit your sense of justice? Do you believe Susie had anything to do with it, or is that just wishful thinking?

At first, I felt the manner of his death was a little too clever. And it happens fairly abruptly, so it left me feeling a little unsatisfied. I wanted him to be arrested and thrown in jail and made to face punishment for his crimes. But, I guess it’s better that his death is kind of insignificant.
7. Do you think more should have been done to develop Buckley’s character?

I thought his character was developed well enough, but there certainly could have been more work done here. However, the author was already giving us the stories of several different characters–Suzie’s parents, sister, and grandmother, Ray, and Ruth–so not having Buckley explored in more detail did not feel like a glaring omission.

And I imagine a lot of you will already know this, but for anyone who doesn’t, Peter Jackson is going to direct a movie adaptation.

I started this one and never finished it. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good, because it was, but I was going through some weird unable-to-read-fiction phase. Thank Og, it’s over now, with a vengeance.

(Been rifling through the bookshelves looking for reading material lately. Is there nothing better than backyard reading in the summertime?)

So thanks for the nudge by creating this thread, and now I intend to re-read the book. And if I get a lot of pages under the belt, I shall return. To mix metaphors.

I hate this book. I hate this book in a way I’ve hated few things.

I find the entire affair juvenile in most demeaning interpretation of that word.

If I were to write a similar book that presented women in the same way Sebold presents men, I would be accused of misogyny.

I am also infuriated by the sequence in which Suse uses her sister and her (I believe sister’s boyfriend) for sex, which is disturbing on a number of levels and in ways makes her an accomplice to rape. From Suse’s perspective that should be repugnant. The mother’s childishness disturbed me also and seemed weak in a narrative way.

For a book about redemption and healing, there is a good deal of hate in it, to my way of thinking, and that renders it, in the kindest terms, a horrid mess.

Sorry, this book just really set me off, probably because of its popularity and the purported sould lifting qualities I found totally lacking in the narrative.

Of course that should read “Soul” not “Sould.”

Mea Culpa

Put me with the folks who thought this book was crap.

Your privilege, of course. But I hope you don’t mind if I respond to your criticisms, which I find a trifle misguided.

What do you mean? If you’re referring to Jack’s (her father) crippling grief, then I must point out that Abigail (her mother) comes off little better; she is the one who has the affair, she is the one who abandons her husband and children. There is no male alcoholic in the story, but there’s a female one (Abigail’s mother). There’s both a male and a female adulterer. Hal and Samuel Heckler are both mensches. How is it anti-male when there are persons of both genders who are flawed and human?

If anything, men come off slightly better in Bones. The only characters seen as incontrovertibly good are Samuel (Lindsey’s boyfriend) and Hal, his older brother; and I write “seen incontrovertibly good” because they are a secondary and tertiary character, respectively, important only as they affect the lives of the primary characters (read: the surviving Salmons, Ruth, and Ray). Because both are basically plot devices, turned to by Lindsey & Buckley for help, solace, and advice, we never get to see their interior lives the way we do the six primaries.

I’m unspoilering your next comment, so anybody looking to avoid surprises be warned…

Whom do you think was raped?

First your memory is wrong: it is Ray and Ruth, not Lindsey and Samuel, whose bodies have sex in the scene. Second, the narrative makes clear that Ruth has had a connection to Susie since her death; remember, Susie’s spirit brushed by Ruth on her way to Heaven. For the ten years between then and the lovemaking, Ruth has been trying to establish a connection with Ruth; she’s been writing her letters, studying stories of people who died in similar ways, making out with Ray while pretending to be Susie (and Ray, remember, is the only boy whom Susie ever kissed, and Ruth knows this). A few pages before Susie inhabits her body, while standing on the spot where Susie’s remains were dumped and feeling a connection to Susie’s ghost, she explicitly asks Susie if she wants anything. It’s far from unreasonable for Susie to believe that Ruth is inviting her to come into her body, if that is possible; clearly she is not being raped. Nor is Ray being raped. Neither force nor coercion is used to seduce Ray, and he recognizes that is it not Ruth’s consciousness inhabiting her body; he knows almost immediately that it is Susie asking him to make love to her. Afterwards Ruth clearly doesn’t feel raped; she helps Ray cover up the evidence of their intrusion to the bike shop, and they remain friends.

So who was raped? Nobody. Everyone involved in that sex act is willing and cognizant of want is going on.

Didn’t you accuse the book of being anti-male earlier, because of the what you saw as the unflattering (and I presume one-sided) treatment of men? But now you’re complaining about Abigail’s depiction?

Okay, you’ll forgive me if it has been a couple of years since I suffered through the misery of reading this tripe masquerading as a deeply emotional work. So I am weak on specifics these days. Yes, I’m complaining about the mother and with good reason. She behaves selfishly, childishly, and unrepentantly (as I recall) and it is put off as her way of dealing with the tragedy as if that excuses her behavior. It’s okay, she was suffering the loss of the child. It is also implied through out that narrative (again, my memory of it) that the ineffectualness of her husband is part of the reason that they fall apart. In short, Her husband is damned if he’s strong and damned if he’s weak. In no way can he help anyone in his family deal with this matter on any emotional level because he is disconnected from them. In short, he is ineffectual in every sense of the word.

The mother goes off on her self-enriching experiences with no negative impact on her life. She may regret some things but in the end, eveything she did was okay, because she needed to do these things. As kids today say, “Whatever.”

Look at the detective, again, another ineffectual male.

The secondary and tertiary characters you mention have no life whatsoever outside of being used by the female characters in the book for whatever they need.

Think about the statement you made here:

So a 22 or 24 year old man makes love to a girl and believes he’s actually making love to a 12 year old girl (or was she 14, I don’t remember). Creepy doesn’t even begin to cover that.

So, their state of mind may not indicate rape, but from an observational point of view I believe Suse used her sister for sex, with at best, an implied consent.

Again, the deeper problem for me is the juvenile nature of almost all of the characters, not to mention the overall sensebilities of the book.

That was my impression at the time, and I don’t intend to make a full-blown critical analysis of it here, because there’s simply no way in hell I’m going to suffer through that book again. It makes the average love letter from a middle-school girl or boy seem to possess the depth of Shakespeare by comparison. There is a pervasive sense of whatever makes you feel good is what’s most important in life, regardless of obligations or, god forbid, the needs of those you “care” about.

Yes, I was offended by the incredibly poor depiction of men. I was also offended by the lazy justification for all the faults found in the female characters as well. It also offended me in terms of life beliefs, responsibilities, and commitment level. In fact, I think it is safe for me to say that if there were to be a book that was antithical to my personal belief systems (apart from Mein Kampf–and it has been almost 30 years on that one, so, please don’t quiz me there either) it would be this book with its smug, selfish, me-first, childish view of life.

I find it deplorable on nearly every level I can think of at this moment – and without going through and making the connections – which I don’t think I can bring myself to do, really don’t feel like discussing it further.

I could pit this book, and there is little in life I feel truly worthy of a good pitting.

If you keep poking me, I may be forced to dig that book out (if I didn’t throw or give it away) and do a full blown analysis, but I think that is terribly unlikely.

I haven’t read the book, but I assume the title is a reference to Allan Sherman’s parody song, I See Bones. Sherman’s doctor tells him what’s in his X-rays.

“And in case you use pay telephones,
There’s two dollars in change,
Among the lovely bones.”

It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation. People often react very badly to the loss of their children. Suffering does not ennoble everyone afflicted by it. Did you want all the characters to be saints?

No, he’s no more or less ineffectual than the mother. They are both dealing with Susie’s death in messed up ways.

This is a reductive rendering of what happened and not really accurate to the spirit of the scene in the book.

It was Ruth, not Susie’s sister. And everyone involved was consensual, so how the heck could it be rape?

Why do people assume every turn of phrase is a reference to something else? It’s something that really vexes me about Wikipedia. “This is a reference to…”

Anywhistle, the title comes from this passage in the book:

*"These were *the lovely bones ** that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life." –

S’alright. I’ll just assume LOVELY BONES is to you as RETURN OF THE KING (the movie) is to me, only you’re less obnoxious about it. :slight_smile:


thank you for posting that quote. between that and the other observations regarding this book and the general sound of it, while i’d vaguely considered getting around to reading this one, since it was supposed to be so popular and all… i’ve now reconsidered and crossed it off the read-list.

a public service well performed. i thank you for saving my time and energy.