A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) is the type of book that effortlessly mounts American bestseller lists. It is impossible to deny that the book serves as a symbolic reaffirmation of the traditional values of the now-vanished American middle class. Any sober analysis of the book must take this into account.
Much like other smash-hit novels, the book fetishizes children / younger teens and their alleged innocence. When readers first encounter the novel’s protagonist, fourteen-year-old girl Susie Salmon, she has already been raped and murdered and is gazing down on the earth from the Bel-Air comfort of her personal heaven. During the recreation of Susie’s murder, the narrative oscillates back and forth between Susie’s violation and killing and a description of charming details from Susie’s life. While this tactic might seem emotionally manipulative, there is no question that Ms. Sebold is shrewd. Only the toughest eyes will be able to hold back their tears.
Ms. Sebold recreates the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl exceptionally well at the beginning of the novel. Her character’s syntax and diction become more sophisticated as the novel spins along. The voice is emotionally manipulative perhaps, but not everyone can psychologically maneuver little lambs via the written word.
Not merely is the book’s milieu white, American suburbia. Its norms are also very suburban, very white, and very American. Unsurprisingly, the book’s heaven (a place where every little girl’s dreams come true) resembles an upper-middle-class country club, with “soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin.”
The slobbering enemy of the work — Susie’s butcher, Mr. Harvey — is what critical theory used to call (and sometimes still does) “the Other.” He is an outsider to the world that Susie and her family inhabit, the kind of man who “never married and ate frozen meals every night and [was] so afraid of rejection that [he] didn’t even own pets. The kind of man you read about in health class.” Such is the novel’s attitude toward anyone who falls too far outside of its particular status quo.
Those of foreign descent are welcome in the novel’s world, on the proviso that they support its middle-class values. Susie’s former boyfriend, Ray Singh, for instance, is Indian and yet gives a guest lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on “Suburbia: The American Experience.” It does seem rather odd that an Indian teenager would care very much about this topic. And since when are teenage boys arbitrarily invited to give lectures at major American universities?
The novel also displays an uncharitable attitude toward other-sexual male desire. Looking down from heaven on her former friend Clarissa, Susie is disgusted by what she sees: a young boy palming the girl, groping for “a little mound of love.” The book presents the sexuality of men as if all male lust were despicable or homicidal.
How did Mr. Harvey become Mr. Harvey? Was Mr. Harvey violated as a young boy? If Susie Salmon survived, would she have transformed into someone like Mr. Harvey? Victims of abuse sometimes become abusers themselves. The Lovely Bones does not explore these seamy depths. If it did, it would not be an Alice Sebold novel.
Dr. Joseph Suglia