This post contains spoilers.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
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Lovely Bones is a perfect novel for a writer to study because Alice Sebold has taken some of the more common writing techniques and conventions, and tipped them on their heads. The good news is that the results work beautifully.
Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is the main character of the book, but she dies at the beginning. How can someone who has died be the main character? How can she have a character arc?
The answer is that for the rest of the story Susie narrates from her own personal heaven. She can observe what happens to those left behind, but no longer participate in the events. Over time, her interpretations of what she sees begins to mature, even though her physical body can no longer do so. This maturing creates the character arc. Plus, although her actions can not drive the story as a main character should, her narration makes it a compelling one.
Beginning novelists are often told to pare down the number of characters in their books. They are advised to combine characters or cut some out. As a result debut novels often have a more limited cast of characters than novels by experienced writers, but again Sebold defies convention. She fills the story with a full complement of characters, from Susie’s family, classmates and friends, teachers, neighbors, to all the people she meets in heaven. The number of the characters works because it makes it seem like we’re reading about a real community, not a made up one.
The plot doesn’t follow the standard formula of rising action to climax, either. Instead, the biggest climax/conflict is right up front when Susie is raped and killed. For the most part, this works. The only weakness in the novel — and it is a minor one — is that the author didn’t have a clean climax in the last part to set up a discrete ending, and therefore the story dragged on a bit longer than necessary. If it was my novel, I would have wrapped up when Susie’s father had a heart attack and her mother came back from California. That seemed to be a natural end point. The scene with Ruth and Ray making love, in particular, seemed tacked on and a bit unnecessary.
Susie’s favorite flowers are daffodils.
The setting is fairly ambiguous. Susie is in “her personal heaven,” which she describes, but which transforms over time. Her family lives in an unnamed suburb somewhere in Pennsylvania.
Whether or not to name real places when writing in the mystery/thriller/suspense area is something authors have to consider. Placing a fictional serial killer in a real town may have an adverse impact on the town. To prevent that, many authors create fictional place names. Instead, Alice Sebold chose to leave the name up to the reader’s imagination. Her choice works because all the incredible physical details she includes make the nameless setting seem real and concrete.
The Lovely Bones stands apart because many aspects of the story are surreal and stretch the reader’s imagination, and yet the underlying emotions are true to life. They are raw, real, and gritty. The combination allows the reader to suspend disbelief over some of the more fantastic elements of the story and makes it enjoyable to read.
As novels go, it is completely unique.
Have you read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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The next book is number 65. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) – Discussion begins March 5, 2018