I spent a good deal of time thinking about this book, took a break from it for a few weeks, and finished it today. I have a lot of admiration for what Alice Sebold has done here - for a first novel, especially, this is terrific, and there are certain things in it, certain moments which are exquisitely observed (I call these "Oprah passages" because I can imagine Oprah sitting across from the author on some cozy set with a fireplace in the background, reading aloud a paragraph to the author herself, while Alice Sebold nods appreciatively and says, "Mmm").
The entire story is very unconventional, also, which is definitely a mark in her favor. I appreciate it when writers go after something different, and too often we wind up punishing these attempts with criticism for not providing something more traditionally structured. It's interesting, too, what books become national "must read" phenomena, isn't it? This, to me, isn't something I would have guessed would strike such a universal chord of acclaim, but sometimes a book just takes off, and readers simply have to read it as a matter of staying culturally current. I'm not complaining or saying, "Gee, why not this other book rather than this." I don't pretend to understand how these things happen, and if I did, I would probably open a publishing house.
Three stars. Why? I guess to me The Lovely Bones overreached in a couple of ways. While I think the overall concept is ballsy, and while I think I get what she was after here, to pull this concept off, the book needed to be LONGER. Which sounds frightening. But one of the problems is that she introduces and follows a dozen characters: the six family members, Ray, Mr. Harvey, Mrs. Singh, Len, Ruth, and Samuel. With her detailed third person omniscient narration, we simply don't get enough feel for that emotional journey each of these individuals has traveled by story's end. Some readers have felt that Mr. Harvey's story ends with something that feels contrived - a bit of a deus ex machina - and I tend to agree. It feels like Sebold gives this to the reader as some sort of burnt offering, payment due for reaching the story's end. It does not feel organic or part of the thematic whole. The book teaches us that terrible things do happen, that there is evil in the world, terrible evil, and that we will encounter it and be forced to reconcile our own lives with it. Likewise, I was not fond of the passages involving heaven - not because it went against some concept I have of the afterlife, but because it detracted from the book's focus. What it did allow, however, were a couple of beautifully vivid moments as Susie and Ruth have certain spiritual encounters. I went into this book expecting it to be centered on a crime, but I was mistaken - it is a book about a family and how the members of that family work through a tragic occurrence. When Sebold strays from this understanding is when the book suffers. Though a lovely idea, I think that the idea of Susie as narrator ultimately hurts the story more than helps it. A straight third person narration would have offered more interesting internal dialogue and authentic pain, rather than have everything filtered through Susie's universal acceptance.