I'm suspicious of runaway-best-seller fiction. The few times I've broken down and grudgingly read it second-hand or leaning against the bookcase at Borders, I've invariably been proven right. Oprah's outreach program notwithstanding, it's so rare that a truly well-written book appeals to anything but a slim section of the book-buying public that really, it's safer just to stay home and ride these things out. Besides, I'm cheap.So I gave The Lovely Bones a wide berth when it first came out. On top of its status as freak super-seller, the violent murder that drives the story just wasn't a big draw for me. (Never made it through Dave Eggers's cancer book, either.) My outlook was black enough in my 20's and 30's to tint the rest of my days without ever having to dip into the existentialists again, and this is assuming the good, long life genetics would appear to have in store for me.
At the same time, that violent act was a draw, in its way. Given what I'm going through with my own work, finding the universal (and the funny) in the very specific (and oft-grim) reality of me and chronic illness, I was curious to see what she'd done with this dark little story to touch such a nerve.
What's clear from the beginning is that the violent act itself, while not gratuitous, is really a device, a jumping-off place, to explore the wherefore of connection. When I started the book, I was deeply afraid that the title referred to the sad leavings of the narrator's mortal self. (SPOILER FOR THOSE ON NEWS BLACKOUT THE PAST THREE YEARS: the story in The Lovely Bones is told by a murdered girl from her new residence in heaven.) But as The Lovely Bones wears on, the story slowly morphs from one of shock and bereavement and the desire to bring a killer to justice into the real story: how people come together and fall apart; how areas of overlap shift and change with events and need; how we find our way through change, even impossibly horrible, violent change that is thrust upon us, to the other side and our new selves.
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 that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredicatable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.
Alice Sebold writes beautifully and clearly, which is a good thing. The story is fanciful enough; fancy writing would likely kill it. Still, I felt a little lost in the heaven sequences. I'm curious to see Peter Jackson's take on The Lovely Bones. While on the surface, it would seem to be wildly different subject matter for the Ring-master, I think Jackson's unparallelled ability to fabricate a world that feels whole and complete will serve this material well.
But do read the book first. Best-seller or no, it's a ripping good yarn.
UPDATE (12/3/08): In a shameless and transparent act of caving, I've been replacing book and DVD links with Amazon affiliate links throughout the site. I MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU CLICK ON THESE. Like, a full 1/4 cent or something. Whatever. I'm happy if you borrow it from a friend or the library, or buy it used (I like half.com and alibris online) or, praise Jeebus!, from your local independent dead tree retailer. Seriously. The main thing is, read. Absorb. Enjoy. Pass it on.