Alice Sebold


"The Almost Moon"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky OCT 30, 2007)

“ ’I like to think that your mother is almost whole,” he said.  “So much in life is about almost, not quites.’

‘Like the moon,’ I said.

There it hung, a thin slice still low in the sky.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘The moon is whole all the time, but we can’t always see it.  What we see is an almost moon or not-quite moon.  The rest is hiding just out of view, but there’s only one moon, so we follow it in the sky.  We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides.’ “

Forty-nine year old Helen Knightly is severely depressed, but she is not fully aware of how low she has sunk until one day, in a fit of despair, she smothers her demented eighty-eight year old mother.  Although Clair Knightly had once been a great beauty who modeled for lingerie ads, the years were not kind to her. She became needy, demanding, and eventually, agoraphobic; she seldom left her house, and then, only while buried under heavy blankets. Helen's father was extremely protective of his wife, but Clair's strangeness was an intolerable burden on both him and their only child. Most of the neighbors shunned them and Helen felt like a pariah. After her father's death, Helen was locked in a vise. She was left to care for her ailing mother; this heavy and unwelcome responsibility had a devastating impact on Helen's emotional well-being.

Read ExcerptHelen spends the twenty-four hours after her mother's death looking back at her unhappy childhood, married life, and many years as a single woman, wondering how she could have committed such a brutal act. How will she escape the consequences of her crime? What words should she use to explain the reasons for her actions to her ex-husband, Jake, and her grown daughters, Sarah and Emily? She will have to endure the censure of her friends and loved ones and the inevitable punishment that will follow. There was a time when Helen thought that she could live a normal life. However, even a satisfying marriage to a loving man and the birth of two beautiful daughters could not erase the pessimism and self-loathing that Helen's dysfunctional parents instilled in her.

Alice Sebold's second novel is a dismal work that features a pitiful and self-destructive protagonist whom it is difficult to like. Helen is foolish and self-centered. Since she is not overtly psychotic, her behavior is difficult to comprehend. Many children have parents who make them miserable and who have become a burden to them. However, it is one thing to want to kill a parent; it is quite another to go through with it in such a shockingly cold-blooded manner. Helen never explores her options before she takes this terrible and irrevocable step.

Alice Sebold is a talented and stylish writer who knows how to construct memorable scenes and create evocative imagery, but those who are seeking an uplifting book similar to The Lovely Bones will find this one disappointing. There is humor here, but it is dark and biting rather than amusing. As the reader gets to know Helen, it becomes apparent how much pressure she has been under and it is possible to empathize with her. After all, she has martyred herself for a parent who is incapable of giving her love or gratitude, and Helen is undoubtedly so lonely and exhausted that she can no longer think straight.  Still, the central theme of the book and the way that it is developed are so unpleasant that The Almost Moon is likely to evoke discomfort rather than admiration among Sebold’s readers. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 314 reviews

Read an excerpt from The Almost Moon at MostlyFiction.com

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"The Lovely Bones"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 26, 2002)

"So it was that, from heaven, I watched my father build a tent with the man who'd killed me."

Our narrator Susie Salmon is already in heaven. Murdered by a neighbor when she was only fourteen years old, Susie tells us what it is like to be in her new place. "When I first entered heaven I thought everyone saw what I saw. That in everyone's heaven there were soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin. That all the buildings were like suburban northeast high schools built in the 1960s." Later she learns that heaven is whatever you truly want it to be and, sometimes, other people's version of heaven intercepts with your own.

Read excerptSusie meets another girl, Holly, on her third day in heaven and they end up sharing their ideal home --- a duplex. Franny, their intake counselor, helps them adjust. As Susie gets used to living in heaven, she watches her family and friends on Earth as they come to the realization that she is gone forever.

Her murder occurred on December 6, 1973; back at a time when people still didn't believe things like that could happen. Unlike later when "kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail." She watches as her parents begin to grasp the un-retractable horror that has entered their lives. At first they try to reassure themselves that "nothing is ever certain;" that Susie is just lost out in the rain somewhere, and alive. But there is no speculation on our part, Susie tells us right off the details of what happened to her.

As the days go by and the evidence mounts, her parents still refuse to believe; that is, until the day Detective Fenerman tells them that all evidence points to their daughter's death and that the police will handle this as a murder investigation. And in that moment Susie sees each of her family members retreat separately into him or her self as each tries to come to understand the devastating news. Her father walks past his wife sitting on the living room carpet unable to comfort her and heads for the study to cry in the "deep ruff of the fur surrounding the dog's neck." When the neighbor tries to bring four-year-old Buckley home, nobody answers the doorbell. It is evident that something has changed in the Salmon household.

Susie worries most about her gifted and petulant sister Lindsay. Lindsay is only one year younger but still is not told directly about what's happened to Susie; instead she hears telephone snippets and bits of conversations between her parents and the police. After hearing her father describe Susie's features, she asks her father not to lie to her, so he doesn't; but even answering her question, he can't face the truth of his words. Susie watches Lindsay sitting alone in her bedroom trying to harden herself. As the story unfolds, it is clear that Lindsay carries the hardest burden, because no one will ever be able to look at her and not think about Susie. By losing her sister, Lindsay is in danger of being robbed of herself.

It is insight like this that made me just love reading this novel. Perhaps it is because Susie is narrating from heaven that she has a true and believable omniscient point of view. Because she cares, all of the characters are explored equally and their motivations, reactions and actions are clearly and evenly relayed. Not that she isn't capable of curling her lip in heaven, nor is she so accepting that she doesn't try to make people see things, especially who her murderer is. And for that matter she does watch her murderer. But it's watching her family and friends as they begin to heal where the heart of the story lies. She's there when her father comes to the realization that the immortality that should have come with bearing three children was not as assured as he thought; and he reacts by pouring his love into the living. Something different happens in Susie's mother. She gave up a scholarly life to have a family, so when her first baby is murdered, it just brings her up short. She goes into a vacant auto-mode, daydreaming about the time before she had a family, even wishing she didn't have a family. Meanwhile Susie keeps watching, hoping that they can feel her there and that a little bit at a time they can be more like the family they used to be.

Susie does find that there are special advantages to being in heaven; like she is now privy to everything, like when her thirteen-year-old sister gets a Christmas present from a cute boy in the kitchen and they kiss. Though Susie has to guard herself against living too vicariously through Lindsay. She also watches while her best friend Clarissa"spins away" from her towards the comfort of her boyfriend. And she keeps a watch over Ray Singh, the boy that she liked, the boy that she managed to have one kiss with before her death. And she follows the "not-so-standard-issue teenage girl" Ruth Connors, whom she accidentally brushed against as she was leaving Earth.

Given the age and what happened to the narrator, one might expect another kind of tone to this novel. But Susie Salmon is not sad, angry, or bitter. Instead she is a mix of curiosity and hope about the people still on Earth. All right, she does have an occasional pang as she watches her sister and the other teens grow up and do things she never will. But her real regret is not for herself; it is for the members of her family and friends who are left to sort out her death. Although there are beautiful morsels describing Susie's "wide, wide heaven," it acts as a backdrop to the novel, not the centerpiece. The Lovely Bones is about Susie watching her family and friends heal and finding their way back to being connected with one another. It is about restoration of a family after it is devastated.

The images and feelings elicited in this novel are ones that speak true and are hard to forget, and although the novel's tone is unsentimental, the events in the story are no less emotional for it. I am not normally one to get weepy, thus reading in public is not a big deal. I was somewhere in the middle of this novel while waiting in a doctor's office and I got so caught up reading that I hadn't realized forty minutes had passed or that I was the only one left in the waiting room. (Did they call my name and I not hear it?) I was glad, though, that there was no one to see me sniff away my happy tears.

There are a lot of scenes that stand out in my mind, but I'll share this one because it shows how Sebold uses the ordinary to express the state of the household. Lindsay is in the bathroom attempting to shave her legs for the first time. It is her father, not her mother, who steps in to help her with this rite of passage. He gives her a new blade and tells her what to do, and against his normal father role, he keeps it to himself that he feels she's still too young to shave her legs. Like so many other moments in the book, it is such a heartbreaking and loving scene. And one that brings them a step closer to healing.

Another way that this novel surprised me is the way the story moves along, partly because the language is so beautiful and partly due to the narration style. Susie narrates by mixing in events about things that happened before she died so that we can see how the family was when she was still there; and at the same time, she keeps the day to day, year to year events moving along, so that we can see the progress the family makes in accepting her death. Because there are so many people that Susie tells us about a lot of things happen in the novel, much of adding a mild suspense. The best part is how easy it is to like her family and friends. And the ending is surprisingly satisfying. Yes, it is wrapped up in nice tidy package, but it leaves a smile, nevertheless. Whereas some writers might not be able to get away with it, this one does. And after the book is read, it's like what Susie says about her and her family, sometimes she still sneaks away to watch her family because she can't help it, and sometimes they still think of her because they can't help it either. I find myself thinking about this novel, because, well, I can't help that either.

It is sad to think that no matter when one reads this novel there will probably be a child missing in the news and a family trying to adjust to the new horror in their lives. As I write this they are still searching for 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Utah. It is not that the The Lovely Bones makes light of this kind of tragedy, but it does bring some healthy insight into the role of death in our lives. "That in the air between the living, spirits bob and weave and laugh with us. They are the oxygen we breathe."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3,281 reviews


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About the Author:

Alice SeboldAlice Sebold is the author of the memoir Lucky. She has been chosen by the Village Voice as a Writer on the Verge and has written for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. She lives in California with her husband, Glen David Gold.
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