The Lovely Bones | Study Guide

Alice Sebold

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The Lovely Bones | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Published in 2002, The Lovely Bones was Alice Sebold's first novel and became an overnight best seller. Its narrator, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, tells the story of her rape and murder as she watches from heaven while her family and friends try to come to terms with her death. Dealing with themes of family relationships, violence, vengeance, and the power of memory, the novel manages to find hope and forgiveness in a story of brutal bereavement. The originality of the book's narrative perspective helped to grab critics' attention, and the focus on the pain and hard work that is part of living with loss have kept it a favorite with readers.

1. Sebold's own brutal rape influenced her to write The Lovely Bones.

During her first semester in college at Syracuse University, Sebold was attacked, beaten, and brutally raped. The rape took place inside a tunnel that led to an amphitheater, the same place where a girl had been murdered and dismembered some years earlier.

For more than a decade afterward, Sebold was unable to process what had happened to her, though she wrote about the rape in the New York Times and spoke about it on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Then she enrolled in a creative writing program and began writing what would become The Lovely Bones, the story of a girl who is raped and murdered.

2. Sebold wrote the first chapter of The Lovely Bones in one sitting.

The character Susie in The Lovely Bones is a murdered 14-year-old who narrates the story. When asked which came to her first, the book's plot or Susie's voice, Sebold replied that it was her voice, saying, "She was very bossy when it came to how her story would be told!"

Sebold went on to describe the intensity of the experience she had writing the first chapter, admitting, "I always feel like saying she [Susie] wrote the first chapter." Not only did this writing get her book off to a solid start, but it also gave Sebold an "intense connection" with Susie.

3. Though The Lovely Bones is narrated from heaven, Sebold doesn't believe in God.

Sebold's version of heaven for Susie includes ice cream on tap and school without teachers. Sebold explained, "The idea of heaven would give you certain pleasures, certain joys—but it's very important to have an intellectual understanding of why you want those things." However, there is no God or Jesus in the book. When asked about her spirituality, Sebold replied, "I believe in dogs."

4. Sebold stopped writing The Lovely Bones to write a memoir about her own rape.

Sebold had begun to write the book that would become The Lovely Bones in 1999 when she stopped to write Lucky, a memoir describing her rape and its aftermath. She explained, "There was some urging on Susie's part that I get my own business out of the way before writing further into her story." Before she could meet the "demands of her [Susie] wanting to tell her story," Sebold had to record her own story "someplace else" so that it didn't interfere.

For Sebold, the process of writing Lucky was a vital part of writing The Lovely Bones. She said, "That story was getting in the way of all the other stories that I didn't even know I wanted to tell."

5. Sebold used poetry to find the voices of her characters in The Lovely Bones.

When Sebold was asked in an interview how she found the voices of her characters, she responded that reading poetry is "a big part" of her writing process:

It's usually down to three to five poets per each book, and then I read a few of their poems every morning before I sit down to work.

She went on to explain that she felt that poetry made her more aware of her subconscious as she wrote, and she has described poetry as her "fuel tank."

6. The Lovely Bones went through 18 printings in the months after publication.

Six weeks before its release, The Lovely Bones topped the book list on Amazon.com, due at least in part to writer Anna Quindlen's rave review of the book. A week before it came out, the book had already been reprinted six times to meet the expected demand. A week after publication, there were more than a half million copies in print, and after three months the novel had gone through 18 printings and had more than 2 million copies in print. For a first novel, this success is astounding and even led the publisher's marketing director to note that the success "reminds you why you chose this business."

7. Reviews of The Lovely Bones ranged from "a high-wire act" to "overpoweringly saccharine."

Most American reviewers raved about The Lovely Bones. A reviewer for the New York Times stated, "This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance." The reviewer continued, "The Lovely Bones takes the stuff of neighborhood tragedy ... and turns it into literature."

Some British reviewers, however, were less positive. A reviewer for the Guardian wrote it was "not exactly bad" but called it "a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy." Tempering the blow with humor, the reviewer noted that his opinion may have been due to "cultural differences," explaining that "the manufacturers of fizzy drinks find it necessary to load their products with extra sugar in America, or so I believe."

8. The Lovely Bones had two previous titles.

When Sebold began writing the novel in the 1990s, its title was Monsters. She gave it to Wilton Barnhardt, a writer friend, to read, and he passed it on to his agent. The novel was renamed This Wide Heaven and then given its final name, The Lovely Bones.

9. Director Peter Jackson left out the rape in his film adaptation of The Lovely Bones.

When Peter Jackson took on the direction of the 2009 film version of The Lovely Bones, he made the decision to leave out the rape of the main character, 14-year-old Susie Salmon. When asked about his choice, he responded that he wanted his daughter to be able to see the "positive aspects" of the film. He said,

We wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch ... So it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all.

10. Sebold's second novel also features a murder—of the narrator's mother.

Sebold's second novel, published in 2007, is titled The Almost Moon. It tells the story of a 49-year-old narrator who decides to smother her monstrous mother with a towel. Reviewers felt it had too much in common with The Lovely Bones, with New York Magazine claiming, "The Almost Moon retains (and even extends) all of The Lovely [Bones's] faults without offering any of its virtues." The New York Times stated that the narrator "comes off as a talkative monster, whom the reader never comes to understand."

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