When a novel becomes a bestseller and enjoys the blessings of such post-Oprah arbiters of middlebrow sentimentality as Anna Quindlen, the question stops being “Can you recommend it to anyone?” Instead, it becomes “Can you recommend it to the sort of reader who finds the treacle of, say, ‘Touched by an Angel’ unbearably cloying?” In the case of Alice Sebold’s novel, the answer is, surprisingly, yes. Except for a dip into prime-time-style inspirational confectionery at the book’s very end, “The Lovely Bones” works for even those readers not perpetually jonesing for synthetic hope.
The novel begins in horror, the rape and murder of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl, at the hands of a neighbor who, unbeknownst to the residents of her Northeastern suburb, is a serial killer. Susie herself narrates the story, from her perch in a personalized version of heaven; it looks like the high school she used to dream of attending, and all the textbooks are fashion magazines. She has a friendly roommate, an “intake counselor” (a former social worker whose reward is to finally be appreciated for it), lots of dogs to play with and a gazebo from which she can watch her family, friends and murderer go on with their lives.
Though “The Lovely Bones” has some moments of suspense, it’s not a whodunit; in the sense that genre thrillers are about violent deeds and literary fiction is about their aftermath, this novel is decidedly literary. But it’s also not bleak after the fashion of very “high” literary fiction. Sebold, who is herself the survivor of a vicious assault (recounted in her memoir “Lucky”), presents Susie’s death unflinchingly, but much of the rest of the book proceeds to soothe the reader, constructing in retrospect the wholesome world this crime has marred. Sometimes this feels a bit like being a child, wrapped in a warm blanket after some kind of trauma, distracted by adults proferring baubles and toys — but they are pleasing toys for all that.
It’s true, Susie lives a life so close to Norman Rockwell, you wonder why she needs to pattern her heaven after his cozy visions. Hers is a town where the 13-year-olds are so nice that they laugh at their middle-aged biology teacher’s “rusty” jokes because they know he has “a sick kid.” Her attentive father builds ships in bottles, the neighbors are (unfortunately) kindly disposed to the semi-reclusive single man on the block and the only tremor of unease on the horizon is that faraway look in her mother’s eyes when she thinks no one is looking at her.
Eventually, teetering under the burden of their loss, Susie’s parents’ marriage fractures, but Sebold makes it clear that the cracks in their relationship, however fine, existed before their daughter makes a fatal and ill-advised decision to take a shortcut through the cornfield. “The Lovely Bones” succeeds at making Susie’s world plausibly nice and not a sliver more; it doesn’t come across as canned, as TV. The Salmons are the “anyone” that terrible things are often said to happen to; that is, they have a family life just idealized enough to be a reasonable fantasy to aspire to.
Yet Sebold never strays into “Seventh Heaven” territory. There is a precision to her observations and to her writing that wards off mawkishness like a voodoo charm: The weird kid at school is the mortician’s son and likes to talk about it; Susie’s sister Lindsey learns to shower in the dark because even she can’t look at herself without seeing her sister; when the survivors eventually get on with their lives, our narrator observes drily, “It was no longer a Susie-fest on Earth.” The lovably brassy, tippling grandmother is also fashionably “rail-thin” and fond of describing Benzedrine as “my own personal savior.”
Mostly, though, it’s by following the strangled, meager life of Mr. Harvey, Susie’s killer, that Sebold proves herself to have too much imagination to write pap. A freelance handcrafter of fancy dollhouse furniture, he passes himself off as a widower still mourning a wife who died young. In the hands of the worst sort of thriller author (and they are legion), Mr. Harvey’s thoughts and deeds would be depicted in sickening, voyeuristic detail. Sebold isn’t euphemistic, doesn’t look away when this character ecstatically recalls dismembering Susie’s body, but she doesn’t linger over it, either. The curiosity she feels toward him hasn’t a trace of either forgiveness (for his brutalized childhood) or fetishism (according to the popular obsession with such monsters). She knows that he is both terrifying and profoundly pathetic.
Susie explains her own scrutiny of the repellent Mr. Harvey by comparing herself to her beloved dogs: “The ones I liked best would lift their heads when they smelled an interesting scent in the air. If it was vivid enough, if they couldn’t identify it immediately, or if, as the case may be, they knew exactly what it was — their brains going, ‘Um, steak tartare’ — they’d track it until they came to the object itself. In the face of the real article, the true story, they decided then what to do. That’s how they operated. They didn’t shut down their desire to know just because the smell was bad or the object was dangerous. They hunted.”
That, too, is how a real writer works, and (except for that one moment mentioned above, a brief failure of will at the very end of “The Lovely Bones,” far outweighed by the deftness that comes before it) that’s how Sebold works, too.
Our next pick: A poor fisherman’s daughter is plucked from her village to be the “practice wife” of a local aristocrat