(Yes, this is another reread, but what can I say?)
When The Lovely Bones came out in 2002, I was amongst the many who couldn’t put it down until the last line was read. And then… I didn’t touch it again until Keith and I were about to move to our new house; I packed it into a box, along with other items I then gave away. A few months ago, however, Keith came home with a battered copy, and I couldn’t help myself. Just as when I read it almost six years ago, I finished it over the course of something like two days. But did the novel still hold up?
Surprisingly, I think yes, but only with a grain of salt.
I’m not giving anything away with the following synopsis: The Lovely Bones is the story of fourteen-year-old Pennsylvanian Susie Salmon, who, in the winter of 1973, is raped and murdered by a neighbor. Afterwards, he literally breaks down her body into parts for disposal, while Susie’s understandably-traumatized soul shoots up to heaven. From that vantage point, Susie watches her family and schoolmates cope with her sudden and violent death — the evidence of which relies mainly upon a pompom-ed winter hat and the only found remains, an elbow.
Consider me disgusting for feeling this way, but including this incredibly evocative detail is brilliance on Sebold’s part. However, profoundly resonant details do not a novel make. Luckily, Sebold also has the narrative to rely upon; by killing Susie, she does something quite incredible: she gives us a protagonist who tells her story in both the first- and third-person omniscient.
While I remain to this day thoroughly impressed with the concept, I can’t help but wonder: is this gimmicky? Keith, of course, put it best when he said to me, “If it is a mechanism that is driving the story — instead of the story driving the mechanism — then it is a gimmick.”
So. Would the story hold up without Susie narrating from The Great Beyond, without her new-found insight regarding her family’s ongoing lives? I can’t help but think that it would not, though I do firmly believe that Sebold’s narrative choice is a gimmick of the most elegant design. Think about it: an audience attends a magic show knowing it is going to be mystified and bamboozled, after all.
Regardless of all that — and disregarding the novel’s crescendo failing to ring nearly as clearly as I’d like — the fact remains that there is undeniable strength in Sebold’s writing. The below excerpt got me the both times I read The Lovely Bones, and again when I impatiently flipped through its pages to type it here. In it, Susie describes the family dog, who has suddenly appeared in heaven, meaning of course, that he has died.
…I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept at my father’s feet after my mother had left, never wanting to let him out of his sight. He had stood with Buckley while he built his fort and had been the only one permitted on the porch while Lindsey and Samuel kissed. And in the past few years of his life, every Sunday morning, Grandma Lynn had made him a skillet-sized peanut butter pancake, which she would place flat on the floor, never tiring of watching him try to pick it up with his snout.
I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.
I should mention that, without fail, I get embarrassingly teary-eyed whenever a dog dies, even if I know that it is fiction. I’m a sucker that way. Still, the writing remains true. In this portion, at the very least.