By: Kailani Small
The Lovely Bones (2002) by Alice Sebold is the story of a fourteen year old girl, Susie Salmon, who watches the aftermath of her brutal death from her personal Heaven. A film adaptation of the same name was released in 2009, and a play adaptation premiered in England in 2018. The Lovely Bones became an instant bestseller after its release. The first chapter of the novel begins with Susie’s rape and murder. While taking her usual shortcut home from school, Susie encounters George Harvey, her neighbor. Harvey coaxes Susie into an underground hideout that readers later learn has been used to murder other kids like Susie in the past. Unknowingly, Susie enters the hideout, where she is then raped, murdered, and dismembered by Harvey. Once Harvey disposes of her body, Susie’s spirit flees to her own personal, curated Heaven, where she then watches over her family and friends as they realize and cope with her death.
‘Heartbreaking’ encapsulates the feeling of Sebold’s novel, though this word is still much of an understatement. The Lovely Bones focuses on themes of grief, desire, the battle between justice and injustice, and family. The theme of family is the most notable, and can be connected to the other themes in the book, as well. Susie’s family surrounds the entirety of the novel, and shapes the narrative after her death. Readers are given insight into Susie’s family over the span of a decade, from their initial reaction to her death to their newfound strength once they come to terms with the tragedy. The novel winds through the different stages of grief, emphasizing its nonlinearity. Its candidness towards grief is what makes The Lovely Bones so beautifully heartbreaking; Sebold doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, though her interpretation of death and what comes after, both on Earth and in Heaven, creates a hope that you wouldn’t expect from a novel like this.
Reception of The Lovely Bones was mostly positive, though its themes didn’t receive well with some readers. The novel has a history of being challenged in schools since its release. In 2007, the novel was challenged at the Coleytown Middle School Library in Westport, Connecticut due to its “mature content.” Coleytown’s superintendent did acknowledge this claim, though also stated that “the book is appropriate to be part of a middle-school library collection serving students from ages 11-14, many of whom possess the maturity level to read this book.” The novel was also challenged in the John W. McDevitt Middle School library in Waltham, Massachusetts. However, this book was moved to the faculty section of its library instead of being contested due to its content being “too frightening” for middle school students. More recently, in 2017, The Lovely Bones was challenged and under review in sophomore-level Academic English II classes at Lemont High School District 210 in Illinois. A parent considered its content “pornographic,” referring to the depictions of rape in the novel. Overall, challenges and bannings of The Lovely Bones are due to its mature and graphic content. The novel still managed to achieve immense success, even receiving the Indies Choice Book Award for Adult Fiction.
Alice Sebold’s success spans more than The Lovely Bones, as she’s also published a personal memoir, Lucky (1999) and The Almost Moon (2007). Sebold’s writing is described as a “fixation on terror” by The New Yorker. Her novels surround themes of tragedy and the overcoming of said tragedy. Sebold hails from Syracuse University, where she experienced a tragedy of her own as she was raped during her time there. This experience shapes her memoir, where she describes an interaction with an officer who said she was lucky to be alive. Sebold received a similar battle of justice and injustice of her own as Susie in The Lovely Bones, as her rapist was arrested, though freed after his sentence. Sebold describes violence and tragedy as normal, and emphasizes this idea through her writing, as she believes that violence affects more than the victim.
One who chooses to read The Lovely Bones should also read Sebold’s other work, as they all focus on similar themes of violence, tragedy, and how characters (and Sebold herself) cope. The Lovely Bones film adaptation is an equally heartbreaking reflection of the novel, and holds up well to its themes despite it not being as successful as the novel that preceded it. Both the novel and the film can be hard to get through, though their overarching theme of hope makes The Lovely Bones beautifully worthwhile.