Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones (Little, Brown and Company, 2002)

Alice Sebold's debut novel, The Lovely Bones, is a coming of age story ... but an unusual one. It takes place in Heaven, where Susie Salmon, fourteen and murdered in a cornfield by a neighbor who happens to be a serial killer, watches over her grieving family and friends, and keeps tabs on her murderer and the detective assigned to her case.

In Susie's world, everyone has his or her own version of heaven. Susie's resembles the athletic fields and landscape of a suburban high school: a heaven where "there were no teachers.... We never had to go inside.... The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue." In short, all of the allure of getting older with none of the unpleasantry.

Eventually Susie learns that she isn't really in Paradise, but only a temporary Heaven. She will not be able to move on until she lets go of her concerns for her past life. Not surprisingly, this is difficult for the murdered girl, as she watches her family disintegrate under the strain of her death; her mother consoles herself with an affair; her father correctly identifies the murderer and obsesses over proving his case; her brother and sister deal with Susie's death as best they can with parents who are falling apart. While Susie will never grow older, never mature through life experience, she is able to mature and grow wiser through observation. As the "lovely bones" of the title grow around the empty space Susie has left in their lives, Susie is granted one wish, and is then able to reassure herself that her loved ones will be OK, so that she can let go of her lost life and "go towards the light," so to speak.

The Lovely Bones has been on all of the mainstream bestseller lists since it arrived on the scene. Book clubs everywhere are reading this novel. Generally, I stay away from narcissistic navel-gazing Oprah's Book Club style mainstream "lit'ratoor," but because the conceit of narration from Heaven fits in with the fantasy oeuvre, I thought GMR might want a review of this book, no matter how bad it might be. Two sentences in I knew I was right, and two pages in I knew that it would definitely not be a negative review. This novel is beautiful and brilliant.

The concept is fascinating; the execution is deft and compelling. So many families that have experienced tragedy of this magnitude fall apart just as the Salmon family does; yet the Salmons are able to heal, if not gracefully and easily, then poignantly and believably. There is no mystery here, as we know who the murderer is from the beginning, but there is exquisite tension as the reader is drawn into the injustice of it all and aches for revenge along with Susie's father. From anguished older sister Lindsey, now the object of unwanted attention at school (the murdered girl's sister!), to sick and twisted killer Mr. Harvey trying to control his evil impulses, these characters are exquisitely and believably drawn.

Susie's death touches her entire town: her first crush who is briefly suspected and who pines gently for her for years afterward; the strange and unpopular girl who feels Susie's spirit pass through her as it leaves the earth, and finds herself obsessed with Susie's murder; the neighbor whose marriage quietly falls apart in an odd parallel with the Salmon union. I believe this book has achieved such popularity in part due to the fact that there is someone here for every reader to identify with, whether or not one has experienced extreme tragedy.

Alice Sebold is a lovely writer; her prose is clear but magical. Love and loss are explored realistically and yet ethereally. The Lovely Bones is about both holding on, and moving on, and the delicate balance between. Expect both laughter and tears from this superb novel.

[Maria Nutick]