I can't just ignore a couple of book recommendations for the same novel, especially when they come from disparate sources. The Lovely Bones (2002) by Alice Sebold was on a number of reading lists and kept making itself known to me until I could ignore it no longer. I really liked many things about this book; it only kind of lost me near the end. In order for me to really discuss this novel, though, I think I'll have to bring up some happenings near the back of the book. Please consider this a warning that there might be some spoilers ahead.
Susie Salmon, the narrator of Sebold's novel, is fourteen years old and she's just been brutally raped and murdered by her neighbor. She watches as her family reacts to her disappearance and assumed death, she watches the police wander past clues and suspects, and she watches her father talk with her killer. At first, I was a little leery of a story that began with the rape and murder of a young, white girl near her home. The sensationalist take on these cases is inevitably over-the-top and incredibly annoying. If this book garnered interest in the same way that Nancy Grace does, then I wanted no part. Fortunately, Sebold, for the most part, bypasses the exploitative nature of these cases by using Susie as her storyteller. Although the tragic occurrences in her life are still moving and sad, hearing it all from Susie means that she's not completely gone, that things can get better.
After her death, Susie finds herself in a heaven-like place where she can watch over her family. There are others with her, but everyone has their own version of heaven, comprised of what they know and wish for, so there are many different versions and Susie only sees her own. She is still desperately attached to her family and watches as they struggle with the reality of her fate. Four-year-old Buckley doesn't understand what's going on, but Susie's sister struggles with her own grief as well as growing up as the poor sibling of a "murdered sister." Susie's parents also fight through their grief, and some problems inherent in their relationship come to a climax under the stress.
The combination of suspense and the sensitive portrayal of a family in crisis was incredibly interesting. The characters felt real and likable, and Susie herself kept the book surprisingly light given the topic. As Susie describes what might have been her first kiss, she says, "[i]f I had known this was to be the sex scene of my life, I might have prepared a bit, reapplied my Strawberry-Banana Kissing Potion as I came in the door." Lindsey, Susie's sister, is strong and independent and somehow manages to continue living, despite her grief and challenges.
While Susie is discovering heaven, watching over her grieving family, and wanting her killer to be caught, I was hooked. But once the living discovered the identity of Susie's killer, the pace of the book slowed down and I started feeling a little lost. And then the end of the book came out of nowhere. Susie changes places with the body of a friend of hers, one who somehow has had the power to sense the dead and wanted to switch with her. Susie uses her limited hours back on Earth to have sex with her middle school crush, and then she goes back to heaven. Then, from heaven, Susie makes an icicle fall into the chest of her murderer, killing him, before he can kill again.
I can appreciate the bittersweetness: that a girl who was ripped from the Earth, only knowing brutality, and never making love, would have the chance to go back and experience it. But Susie comes back for only a couple of hours and she sleeps with her middle school crush? Is that really the best use of her time? I like the idea that she would choose love over vengeance, but she had just been watching as her killer stalked her sister. He's out there, he's a danger, and she knew where he was. And what about her family? I guess I also found the whole "coming back to Earth" plot point hard to believe. From my perspective, Sebold's world wouldn't allow for that, and I couldn't imagine her old boyfriend suddenly believing that Susie had come back from the dead and was inhabiting her friend's body. The whole falling icicle thing was also a little hard for me to believe, and it was a little too convenient. I did like this book; I was impressed how Sebold could twist a horrible murder into an often funny and touching story, but I did have some problems near the end.