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Alice Sebold was launched into the national spotlight when New York Times columnist Anna Quindlan appeared on the Today Show and declared that Sebold’s soon-to-be published book, The Lovely Bones, was the one book everyone should read that summer. The response was enormous, leading the publisher to increase the size of the book’s first printing from thirty-five thousand to fifty thou-sand copies. Before the book’s official publication date, it was in its sixth printing. Within months, more than two million copies were in print.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Rape at Syracuse
Sebold grew up in Philadelphia and attended Syracuse University from 1980 to 1984. As an eighteen-year-old freshman, she was beaten and raped in a tunnel leading to an amphitheater on campus. Several months later she recognized her rapist on the streets of Syracuse and played a key role in his arrest and successful prosecution.
After graduation, Sebold entered the M.F.A. program at the University of Houston but did not finish her degree. After leaving the program, she moved to New York City and lived there for ten years. Eventually, she returned to graduate school. She received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California at Irvine. She met her future husband, Glen David Gold, while in graduate school. They married in 2001.
While in the M.F.A. program at Irvine, Sebold began her memoir, Lucky, which took its title from the comments of a police officer at the time of her attack, who told her she was lucky to be alive. The memoir tells the story of her rape, how she coped, the reactions of her friends and family, and her alcohol and drug abuse that resulted from the trauma. Sebold also relates the events that led to the rapist’s conviction.
Breakout First Novel
Sebold has stated that she needed to write Lucky before she could tell the story of Susie, the fourteen-year-old protagonist in 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. I had to get it out before I could move on.” In the first chapter of The Lovely Bones, Susie is raped and murdered. The rest of the book, told from Susie’s perspective in heaven, deals with the impact of Susie’s murder on her family and friends.
The Lovely Bones proved immensely popular, changing Sebold’s life virtually overnight. The book was made into a movie scheduled to be released in 2009.
Sebold’s third book, The Almost Moon, was published in 2007. Sebold revisited her themes of violence and trauma in this book, which tells the story of a woman who kills her mother and stores her body in the freezer. The novel opens with the act of violence, much as The Lovely Bones did: ”When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” The rest of the novel deals with the repercussions of that act. Critics almost universally dismissed the book.
Works in Literary Context
Memoir is a subcategory of autobiography. While autobiographies are life stories usually covering all the important events of a person’s life in chronological order, memoirs generally focus on one event in life, or an aspect in life, and are primarily concerned with emotion and reflection. Memoir has become a very popular genre in recent years.
While memoirs have a long history, Sebold’s Lucky represented what Joyce Carol Oates called the ”New Memoir.” She describes it as ”the memoir of sharply focused events, very often traumatic, in distinction to the traditional life-memoir.” In these memoirs, the individual, who is often relatively young, writes the story of the traumatic ordeal and the path to coping and recovery. Lucky follows in the tradition of Angela’s Ashes (1996), by Frank McCourt, which tells the story of McCourt’s poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland, and Girl, Interrupted (1993), by Susanna Kaysen, which relates the story of her two-year stay in a mental institution as a young woman.
Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, is narrated by Susie from heaven. The most obvious predecessor for this narrative device was Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town (1938) in which the main character, Emily, also has omniscient knowledge after her death. Such a device uses elements of magic realism. Magic realism is a mode of fiction in which magical or fantastic elements are included in an otherwise realistic story. Some of the most famous examples of magic realism are the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967 in Spanish; first English translation, 1970) and Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows (1985).
Works in Critical Context
Although commentators are divided on the literary merit of Sebold’s work, her books have garnered significant interest from critics and readers alike. Sebold has been praised for handling such dark material in honest, provocative, and imaginative ways.
Lucky met with almost universal critical acclaim, although it was not nearly as popular as The Lovely Bones, published three years later. Wrote Joyce Carol Oates, “Lucky is an utterly realistic, unsparing and distinctly unsugary account of violent rape and its aftermath.” She wrote, ”Exemplary memoirs like Lucky break the formula with their originality of insight and expression.” In comparison with Sebold’s breakout novel, wrote one author, “Lucky is the more integrated and successful book.” Andrea Dworkin concurs: ”Lucky is burdened with facts, more pedestrian, more real. Lucky is the more important book.”
The Lovely Bones
The Lovely Bones met mixed reviews. Some reviewers called the book too sentimental and ”sugary.” They pointed out that the book’s extraordinary popularity might be due to the national mood after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. ”Its goal,” writes Joyce Carol Oates, ”is to confirm what we wish we could believe and not to unsettle us with harsh, intransigent truths about human cruelty.” Noting that the book is much more about tracing the process of healing than it is about confronting horrifying violence head-on, Daniel Mendelsohn criticizes the book for ”stitch[ing] improbably neat closure for some very untidy wounds.” He goes on to write, ”Sebold’s novel consistently offers healing with no real mourning, and prefers to offer cliches … of comfort instead of confrontations with evil, or even with genuinely harrowing grief” Sarah Churchwell concurs, writing, ”Those in the mood to believe that suffering guarantees maturity, hard-earned wisdom and the smell of baking downstairs, will love all of The Lovely Bones.”
On the other hand, many reviewers praised the work, beginning with Anna Quindlan on the Today Show. Los Angeles Times critic Paula L. Woods writes, ”With a well-balanced mix of heavenly humor, Earth-bound suspense and keen observation of both sides of Susie’s in-between, Sebold teaches us much about living and dying, holding on and letting go . . . and has created a novel that is painfully fine and accomplished. Churchwell praises at least the first half of the book as ”a wonderfully observed, moving portrait of adolescence as a series of losses and accommodations to the pains of adulthood. Reviewing The Lovely Bones in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani gives it high praise. ”What might play as a sentimental melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer becomes in this volume a keenly observed portrait of familial love, Kakutani noted, ”and how it endures and changes over time. The Times notoriously frank critic did concede that the plot falters toward the end, but ”even these lapses do not diminish Ms. Sebold’s achievements: her ability to capture both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the banal and the horrific, in lyrical, unsentimental prose; her instinctive understanding of the mathematics of love between parents and children; her gift for making palpable the dreams, regrets, and unstilled hopes of one girl and one family, Kakutani concluded.
- Abbott, Charlotte. ”How About Them Bones?” Publishers Weekly, vol. 249, no. 30 (July 29, 2002): 22-24.
- Churchwell, Sarah. ”A Neato Heaven.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5186 (August 23, 2002): 19.
- Dworkin, Andrea. ”A Good Rape.” New Statesman, vol. 132, no. 4644 (June 30, 2003): pp. 51-52.
- Eder, Doris L. ”The Saving Powers of Memory and Imagination in Alice Sebold’s Lucky and The Lovely Bones.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, 193 (2004).
- Mendelson, Daniel. ”Novel of the Year.” New York Review of Books, vol. 50, no. 1 (January 16, 2003): 4-8.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. ”Trauma, Coping, Recovery.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5229 (June 20,2003): p. 15.
- Siegel, Lee. ”Mom’s in the Freezer.” New York Times (October 21, 2007).
- Woods, Paula L. ”Holding On and Letting Go.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 7, 2002, p. 7.
- Carter, Imogen. ”Howling at the Moon. The Guardian. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/12/fiction6.
- Weich, Dave. ”Interview with Alice Sebold.” The World Meets Alice Sebold. July 22, 2002. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.powells.com/authors/sebold.html.
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