|The Lovely Bones
by Alice Sebold
List Price: $21.95
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
When we first meet Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. As she looks down from this strange new place, she tells us, in the fresh and spirited voice of a fourteen-year-old girl, a tale that is both haunting and full of hope.
In the weeks following her death, Susie watches life on Earth continuing without her-her school friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her family holding out hope that she'll be found, her killer trying to cover his tracks. As months pass without leads, Susie sees her parents' marriage being contorted by loss, her sister hardening herself in an effort to stay strong, and her little brother trying to grasp the meaning of the word gone.
And she explores the place called heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counselors to help newcomers adjust and friends to room with. Everything she ever wanted appears as soon as she thinks of it-except the thing she most wants: to be back with the people she loved on Earth.
With compassion, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie sees her loved ones pass through grief and begin to mend. Her father embarks on a risky quest to ensnare her killer. Her sister undertakes a feat of remarkable daring. And the boy Susie cared for moves on, only to find himself at the center of a miraculous event.
The Lovely Bones is luminous and astonishing, a novel that builds out of grief the most hopeful of stories. In the hands of a brilliant new writer, this story of the worst thing a family can face is transformed into a suspenseful and even funny novel about love, memory, joy, heaven, and healing.
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1. In Susie's Heaven, she is surrounded by things that bring her peace. What would your Heaven be like? Is it surprising that in Susie's inward, personal version of the hereafter there is no God or larger being that presides?
2. Why does Ruth become Susie's main connection to Earth? Was it accidental that Susie touched Ruth on her way up to Heaven, or was Ruth actually chosen to be Susie's emotional conduit?
3. Rape is one of the most alienating experiences imaginable. Susie's rape ends in murder and changes her family and friends forever. Alienation is transferred, in a sense, to Susie's parents and siblings. How do they each experience loneliness and solitude after Susie's death?
4. Why does the author include details about Mr. Harvey's childhood and his memories of his mother? By giving him a human side, does Sebold get us closer to understanding his motivation? Sebold explained in an interview about the novel that murderers "are not animals but men," and that is what makes them so frightening. Do you agree?
5. Discuss the way in which guilt manifests itself in the various characters - Jack, Abigail, Lindsay, Mr. Harvey, Len Fenerman.
6. "Pushing on the inbetween" is how Susie describes her efforts to connect with those she has left behind on Earth. Have you ever felt as though someone was trying to communicate with you from "the inbetween"?
7. Does Buckley really see Susie, or does he make up a version of his sister as a way of understanding, and not being too emotionally damaged by, her death? How do you explain tragedy to a child? Do you think Susie's parents do a good job of helping Buckley comprehend the loss of his sister?
8. Susie is killed just as she was beginning to see her mother and father as real people, not just as parents. Watching her parents' relationship change in the wake of her death, she begins to understand how they react to the world and to each other. How does this newfound understanding affect Susie?
9. Can Abigail's choice to leave her family be justified?
10. Why does Abigail leave her dead daughter's photo outside the Chicago Airport on her way back to her family?
11. Susie observes that "The living deserve attention, too." She watches her sister, Lindsay, being neglected as those around her focus all their attention on grieving for Susie. Jack refuses to allow Buckley to use Susie's clothes in his garden. When is it time to let go?
12. Susie's Heaven seems to have different stages, and climbing to the next stage of Heaven requires her to remove herself from what happens on Earth. What is this process like for Susie?
13. In The Lovely Bones, adult relationships (Abigail and Jack, Ray's parents) are dysfunctional and troubled, whereas the young relationships (Lindsay and Samuel, Ray and Susie, Ray and Ruth) all seem to have depth, maturity, and potential. What is the author saying about young love? About the trials and tribulations of married life?
14. Is Jack Salmon allowing himself to be swallowed up by his grief? Is there a point where he should have let go? How does his grief process affect his family? Is there something admirable about holding on so tightly to Susie's memory and not denying his profound sadness?
15. Ray and Susie's final physical experience (via Ruth's body) seems to act almost as an exorcism that sweeps away, if only temporarily, Susie's memory of her rape. What is the significance of this act for Susie, and does it serve to counterbalance the violent act that ended Susie's life?
16. Alice Sebold seems to be saying that out of tragedy comes healing. Susie's family fractures and comes back together, a town learns to find strength in each other. Do you agree that good can come of great trauma?
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"Sebold has given us a fantasy-fable of great authority, charm, and daring. She's a one-of-a-kind writer."
Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections
"Ms. Sebold's achievements: her ability to capture both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the banal and the horrific, in lyrical, unsentimental prose; her instinctive understanding of the mathematics of love between parents and children; her gift for making palpable the dreams, regrets and unstilled hopes of one girl and one family."
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times Arts section review
"A small but far from minor miracle...a story that is both tragic and full of light and grace...full of suspense and written in lithe, resilient prose that by itself delights."
Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
"Masterful" and "compelling.... Sebold's beautiful novel shows how a tragedy can tear a family apart, and bring them back together again. She challenges us to re-imagine happy endings, as she brings the novel to a conclusion that is unfalteringly magnificent. And she paints, with an artist's precision, a portrait of a world where the terrible and the miraculous can and do co-exist."
"The Lovely Bones is one of the strangest experiences I have had as a reader in a long time, and one of the most memorable. Painfully funny, bracingly tough, terribly sad, it is a feat of imagination and a tribute to the healing power of grief."
Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
"What a wonderful writer Alice Sebold is. Out of darkness she makes light, out of despair and violence, beauty, out of deep loss a peculiar, hard-won gain. All her characters, for good or ill, travel to surprising places, and so do we, her extremely fortunate readers."
Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture
"Set in a heaven as real and possible as the earth is mysterious and shifting, The Lovely Bones explores, with clear-eyed affection and wit, the romance of family life, the shy, funny turbulence of adolescence, and the painful tracks love and loss make through our world."
Amy Bloom, author of A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You
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