Sarah's Reviews > The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
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's review
Sep 24, 2007

did not like it
Recommended for: enemies
Read in September, 2007

The Lovely Bones has got to be the most baffling, poorly written, jaw-droppingly bad book that I have ever set my eyes on. It is truly a black, black tragedy that the words in this book were placed in that particular order, published, and distributed. How could this have ever possibly been popular? Is it for the same reason that the song “My Humps” hit number one? I mean, I don’t technically believe in burning books, but this novel really got me thinking. About burning it.

If it serves any use at all, it might be a perfect guide on how not to write a book. Here are some of my gripes, problems and issues that we can hopefully use to prevent something like this from ever happening again to us, our children, or our children’s children:

It is filled with some of the worst sentence-level writing that I have ever encountered. From bad description to horrible grammar to utterly confusing metaphors, Sebold covered it all. A tell-tale way to spot a weak writer? They can’t stop weirdly describing people’s eyes. Don’t believe me? Try this sentence: “Her eyes were like flint and flower petals.” Or this one: “The tears came like a small relentless army approaching the front lines of her eyes. She asked for coffee and toast in a restaurant and buttered it with her tears.” Really? She buttered the coffee and toast with her tears? Or this one, this time about someone’s heart: “Her heart, like a recipe, was reduced.” What the hell?

And here’s my favorite eye description in the book: “Her pupils dilated, pulsing in and out like small, ferocious olives.” That’s right. Ferocious olives. I’ve read MadLibs that make more sense than that.

It seems to lack a plot. You know, that thing that books are supposed to have. I’ll never forget my first workshop with Brady Udall, in which he threw my story onto the table and said, “This isn’t a story, Sarah, it’s a situation.” And as much as I despaired when I got home, he was right. Sebold has the same problem: her book is a really long situation. A girl dies and watches her family from heaven. Okay. That’s nice. But what do the characters want? What drives the story forward? Nothing. The characters get older and keep bumping into each other. Things change, and things often do, but there is no forward movement and certainly no building of suspense.

Since there’s no plot, the ending is just a bunch of weird stuff happening. I read the last thirty pages on the train this morning, and couldn’t stop a few outbursts: “Oh, no she didn’t!” I’d say, talking to Alice Sebold and her crazy ways. She is just plain bold when it comes to doing whatever she feels like, and she feels like doing the weirdest stuff ever. It’s not that I don’t want to write spoilers here, it’s that I can’t even explain to you what happened at the end of the book. And I bet she can’t either. I’m not exaggerating.

Her characters never have interesting or complex thoughts. Not even the serial killer or the mother whose daughter was murdered. It seems that Sebold’s characters do one of two things: they laugh (which means they are happy) or cry (to butter their toast, somehow, when they are sad). As you might guess, there is a lot of laughing and crying in this book. When a character is confused, they laugh and cry at the same time. This also happens often.

I feel a little better after venting. But I’m still deeply sad and angry. I feel like my own writing might have been permanently damaged by reading this book… like a couple of… ferocious… olives?

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Reading Progress

01/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 371) (371 new)

message 1: by Pdxstacey (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:41PM) (new)

Pdxstacey I hated this book as well! I could not figure out why everyone on the subway was suddenly reading it.

message 2: by Claire (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Claire Monahan HAH. You've hit the nail on the head.

(And I would totally recommend this to my enemies, too.)

message 3: by Nikki (last edited Dec 13, 2007 04:53PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Nikki Sarah 'in the house'!!!

you GO girl

you are "off the hook" my darling!

(i know- let's bring them camping the next time you go for a buck- we'll make a party of it!)

message 4: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant There should be a goodreads Best Diatribes. This would be in the top ten I think. I don't wanna read The Luvverly Bones any more!

message 5: by Ruth (new) - rated it 1 star

Ruth Terrible book. The farther away I get from the experience of reading it, the more I dislike it.

But Sarah darling, it's the restaurant she's buttering with her tears.


Phillip Oh my, did we ALL go to workshops with Brady Udall? How lucky we are.
So the point of the diatribe was? What we can learn from Brady Udall that Alice Seabold missed?
Can we start a book group just for artistes and hiss all over those books that entertained thousands if not millions of poor folks because they (the books not the unwashed by workshops) were emotional, had heart and were not pretentious smoldering piles of large warm words?
Sarah, have you considered sueing Sebold for possibly damaging your blogging skills? Maybe the new writers group could all chip in for a good attorney.
And for good measure, I liked "Lucky" too.

Sarah Hi Phillip

I like tons and tons of mainstream and best-selling writers - why do you think I was reading the Lovely Bones in the first place? Try looking at the other books I've read or, I don't know, perhaps getting to know me, before you break out works like "pretentious." I love pulp crime, pulp horror, chick lit, and science fiction in addition to the classics and more literary picks.

However, despite my love of similar authors, I consider this book a piece of crap. I'll forgive mediocre writing if the plot is moving or the characters or memorable and vice versa. But if the book has absolutely nothing to offer, like this one, I'm not sure why I shouldn't warn others.

Finally, when it comes down to it, my disliking books is based on MY OPINION and you liking books is based on YOUR OPINION. Have you ever thought that it is possible that one person could like an author and another person could dislike an author and both people could be "right"? It's called having different tastes. And writing book reviews is about sharing OUR DIFFERING OPINIONS.

message 8: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Hi Ruth (three comments back) - you butter toast, not restaurants, and how do you butter a restaurant anyway, even if you might metaphorically wish to? I don't get that.

message 9: by Victoria (new)

Victoria I have never read anything by Alice Sebold and this has definitely clinched it for me - I never will.

Thank you for my first real laugh of the morning. I don't think I will ever look at olives in quite the same way again.

message 10: by Ruth (new) - rated it 1 star

Ruth From Sarah's review, Paul. She asked for coffee and toast in a restaurant and buttered it with her tears.”


message 11: by Sarah (new) - rated it 1 star

Sarah NC - thanks for your sweeping generalizations and general stereotyping of writing, writers' workshops, and me.

And - I finished the book because I finish every book I start. I guess it's a habit.

Ruth - good point! it's baffling in so many ways!

Victoria - thanks.

message 12: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Sarah - you must adopt the 100 page rule (itself quite generous) - if you don't like it by page 100, throw it at the wall. I used to be like you, but I changed. Life is better.

message 13: by Ben (new)

Ben Fowlkes So "Phillip" or NC or whoever is Alice Sebold, right? Otherwise, I can't see defending this book. I mean, here's all the evidence you need: "She asked for coffee and toast in a restaurant and buttered it with her tears."

Boom. The person who wrote that sentence is not a person who is paying attention to their own writing. The fact that it "entertained thousands if not millions" is not really a defense, either.

This book didn't have heart; it had overblown sentimentality. They aren't the same thing. It was also wildly inconsistent within the world of the narrative. One minute she's in everybody's head and on the FACING PAGE she's wondering what someone is thinking. That's basic shit, there. If you can't keep your own narrative world consistent, what can you do? Entertain millions, I guess.

message 14: by Lesley (new)

Lesley My, people get really pissy on bookster. I loved this review as I, too, read The Lovely Bones in its entirety perhaps in part because of how absurdly simple and, well, bad it was. For me, I guess I felt it would have taken more energy to put it down and kick myself for starting something I didn’t finish, than to just keep reading on, turning the pages, and feeling that similarly satisfying self-inflicted shivery pain that I used to get when chewing gum on my newly emerging adult molars or watching Bill O’Reilly for two minutes at a time.

As far as I'm concerned, here's the thing: this book seems like it would be profound or emotionally complex because it's narrated by a raped and murdered teenager. That it's not actually complex but rather exceedingly simple and trite I think gets little bit lost in the emotionally-charged (and tantalizingly macabre) subject matter.

But, whatever, not everyone cares about complexity and nuanced tragedy. Sometimes people just want a quick emotional fix or an easy, easy, page-turning read. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That's totally fine. I love that shit, myself, and I imagine Sarah loves it, too, sometimes. I think where it gets a little tacky is where the two (quick and easy vs. nuanced tragedy) get conflated based on an appeal to our emotions. I think a story about the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl ought not be sentimental and quick. And I happen to think The Lovely Bones, with its overly simplistic description of character motivations and its extensive description of heaven, is sentimental and quick.

That said, I think whether you're reading The Lovely Bones on an airplane, a lazy Sunday morning, or with a critical eye (a writer’s eye or otherwise) makes all the difference (why do I keep talking about eyes? Damn you Sebold!). If you're reading it on the airplane, for example, you might well love it because it's super easy to read but the subject matter lets you feel a little bit like you might be reading something important. If you're reading it critically, however, you're probably going to end up feeling a little bit violated because when you scratch the surface of this horrible story looking for a core, you find there is nothing much of substance underneath.

message 15: by Jessica (last edited Jan 19, 2008 11:51AM) (new)

Jessica This is a lovely review. I must say, I'm pretty baffled by some of the unpleasant people on this site, but I guess I'm aware by now that there're a lot of unpleasant people out in the world, so it makes sense they'd pop up in cyberspace, too.... Huh. Maybe they hate you because you're a girl and a good book report writer? A lot of dudes, especially older, embittered ones, seem to hate that kind of thing. This seems like a very stupid explanation, but I can't think of another one to explain all this seemingly baseless animosity. I mean, it's weird, right? Isn't the point of this site for people to share their opinions about books they've read? And shouldn't that include negative opinions? I mean, if we were all at a cocktail party and you'd just rushed up to Ms. Sebold and called her a crappy writer to her face, that would've been rude and they'd be right to call you a jerk, but that's not exactly the situation here.... hm. Well, it takes all kinds! (Unfortunately.)

Anyway, I've never read anything by this writer, but everything I've heard about her books has made them sound horrible. The Times reviewer basically threw up all over her newest book, and then published his vomit-stained copy as a sort of warning to us all. People really seem to hate her stuff, but I guess some other people really seem to like it, and to get their panties in a real twist if anyone makes any unkind comments about her writing abilities. I guess Fergie has a lot of fans also, though I wonder if they're equally loyal, or equally unpleasant.

Wow! Anyway, I'm really starting to hate this site. At first I liked it because it seemed so sweet and dorky, but seeing people get so nasty all the time is very depressing. I feel like there are many more appropriate forums for people to blow off steam by being rude and insulting to people they don't even know. Sigh. Oh well....

[edited to preserve civility]

message 16: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant I loved Sarah's review *because* it was so scathing. I occasionally allow myself to take the gloves off, and I find the same very hostile reaction (as in this knockabout with American Psycho

I just finished The Poisonwood Bible, however, and I'm *not* posting a real review of that one as I know it would call down upon my innocent head great Goodreadin' wrath, imprecations, curses and meditations on the dubious nature of my parentage. So I guess you need to qualify honesty with the knowledge that many people - especially we may say the passionate bookreaders of Goodreads - take their favourite books very personally and if someone writes "you must be an idiot/misogynist/nazi if you like this stuff" - as i have done - they feel somewhat ruffled and they bite back.
I take that to be the nature of debate everywhere, so Jessica, don't leave us.

message 17: by Lesley (new)

Lesley Nathan, I'm pretty sure that's not actually what she said. But I suppose, at this point, that's neither here nor there.

message 18: by Sarah (new) - rated it 1 star

Sarah Wow - even though I seemed to have somehow offended people with my review, I'm glad I posted it because it's led me to so many other great reader - Jessica, Paul, Lesley, Donald, etc. I must have spent an hour going through your books and reviews. Thanks.

NC - I can't say I like your attitude, but I'll try to keep an open mind... we have Oscar Wilde and Annie Proulx in common - perhaps we should try to get off on a better start.

Charity Can I just say...Kudos to you, Sarah! I finally feel like I am not alone in my loathing of this book anymore. It has always been my 'Titanic' of books...everyone else loved it, but I must have missed all the 'great' moments because of all my eye rolling. :) Oh well! I guess the cheese stands alone sometimes. Thankfully, this is no longer one of those times. Whoo hoo!!

message 20: by Dana (last edited Feb 22, 2008 08:00AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dana Brilliant response(s).....and book review too. You really did put into words accuratly what I felt while reading. I'm in a family full of people giving this book 5 stars!! *gasp* I actually trusted them and spent money buying this book. Thank you for your specific and detailed examples proving what should be so obvious to all......The Lovely Bones is anything but lovely!

message 21: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant "It seems to lack a plot. You know, that thing that books are supposed to have. I’ll never forget my first workshop with Brady Udall, in which he threw my story onto the table and said, “This isn’t a story, Sarah, it’s a situation.” "

Whilst I'm a big fan of Sarah's review I'd like to ask if Brady Udall's comment is especially meaningful, having read many modern short stories and novels in which plot (story) is nonexistent and situation is everything. For instance, every story in Joyce's Dubliners describes a situation, not a lot actually happens.

message 22: by David (new)

David Sarah: I just came across your review and loved it. I've never read "The Lovely Bones", but I know a smart review when I see one.

Paul - I disagree with your comment about the utility/necessity of plot. If someone writes a novel and expects to hold my interest as a reader, then something had better happen. True for short stories as well, for that matter*. And, without having specific examples at hand, other than "The Dead", I would argue that it is a mischaracterization of Joyce's stories to say that not a lot happens. Of course, since I live my life way too much in my head, I do consider stuff that takes place in a character's head to be legitimate "action". Emotional volcanic eruptions generally being more interesting than the geological kind.

*: Probably the reason I tend to have difficulty liking 'short short stories'. Which usually are more about demonstrating the author's 'cleverness' than anything else.

message 23: by Paul (last edited Feb 22, 2008 10:44AM) (new)

Paul Bryant David - well then, if stuff that takes place in the character's head counts as story, surely The Loverly Bones is full of story. But apparently it isn't. I think I'm confused.

message 24: by Lesley (new)

Lesley I can't say I agree that The Lovely Bones lacks a plot...unless my understanding of "plot" is incorrect and/or incomplete. If someone asks me what this book is about, I find I can sum it up with relative ease. It's about something. Stuff happens. It's just characterologically and emotionally shallow/empty/cheap and that's a damn shame, if not an unforgivable travesty, given the nature of what happens to the 13-year-old narrator (for those of you who forgot, she's raped, stabbed to death in a spooky underground lair, dismembered, and lugged around in a burlap sack by her creepy neighbor before being tossed into a trash-filled sink hole). Right?

In my fascist state, I would outlaw the drawing of even the most vague and tenuous comparisons between James Joyce and Alice Sebold. Effective immediately.

message 25: by Terry (new) - rated it 1 star

Terry Sarah---I second that emotion. Hah. I hated this book as well, for all the reasons you state and more. Ugh!!! That's all I have to say.

Karen Until I read Sarah's review (and so many of the comments to follow), I thought I was the only person on the planet that didn't like this book. Thank you, people, I now don't feel so alone! While reading, I could predict exactly what was going to be on the next page, it was hideous. One of the parts that really made me roll the eyes big time was the scene when she was having the virtual sex with the boyfriend through her friend. WTF? I used to be like you, Sarah, and finish a book no matter what. I've changed that thought after reading so many books that just were impossible to finish.

message 27: by G (new)

G Sarah - best fucking review award ever on Goodreads actually might - just might - be David's own review of The Giving Tree. Then there's Jessica's review of Swann's Way. Those are my Top Three, who can pick the winner out of such munificence.

message 28: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Oops sorry, that was a comment from me not my young swearing daughter at all. This is always happening, I'll have to ban her from Goodreads.

message 29: by Ruth (new) - rated it 1 star

Ruth She's beautiful, Paul.


message 30: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Yeah, Paul. If I weren't already aware of the recurring madcap mixups over at the Bryant household, I might've just taken back everything I said the other day in my anti-censorship rant.... Oh, this sweet tiny angel of innocence! Reading reviews of these three filthy books, and cursing like a tiny sailor!

Actually, Georgia's written some pretty good reviews herself. At least, I think she wrote them. One can't ever be sure with you guys.

message 31: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant That was when she was five, now she's eleven and very spotty!

Ainsley What a great review - you nailed it on the head Sarah. It is a crap book. Someone should stop Sebold, or more people may be buttering their toast with tears....

message 33: by james (last edited Mar 09, 2008 05:50AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

james my 2 cents:


that's the book to read.

message 34: by Kate (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kate Zirkle I was about to flag this book for reading until I read your review... and not that I often just take someone else's opinion as the one and only Gospel of Truth or anything but what you wrote just resonated within me. Kudos and thank you... many times over, thank you. You saved me precious reading time.

And you know what, don't worry about the people on here who post comments containing personal, needless digs at you because "those who hurt... are hurting" as in you should just shake your head and feel bad for them.

Christine I read this book years ago but I have no memory whatsoever of the ferocious olives! After reading your review, I almost feel like reading it again to see what you saw. REALLY good review. Really good bad review? :)

Will look forward to reading more of your write-ups in the future. This one was fun to read!

message 36: by [deleted user] (new)

Good review...and funny. Reminds me of my reaction to Valley of the Dolls years ago. After ten pages and then tossing it in the trash where it belonged I said how can she actually SELL this crap, and why would anyone read it?

message 37: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Some people have a different view of Valley of the Dolls - my friend Jessica says

"If you haven't read this book, I suggest you quit dicking around on the internet and do absolutely whatever it takes to snag yourself a copy this instant. Granted it's probably not for everyone, but I gotta tell you, this is seriously among THE MOST VASTLY ENTERTAINING books I have ever read in my life. "

Lorraine I think you're spot-on about her descriptions. They're evidently attempts to sound profound, but they've just as evidently failed.

message 39: by Anu (new) - rated it 1 star

Anu This is the single BEST review I've ever read on this site. Thank you thank you THANK YOU.

And I really hated this book too. Utter trash.

message 40: by Brian (new)

Brian Sarah, thank you for saying what I should have said. To be honest, I don't think I got as far as "buttering the toast with tears". You are correct. It is a very badly written book and I cannot imagine why the publisher didn't employ an editor, and if they did why that person didn't do their job. I am constantly amazed at how many badly written books get published. The whole concept of telling a story is lost these days and that applies to the cinema as well.

message 41: by Brian (new)

Brian Sarah, thank you for saying what I should have said. To be honest, I don't think I got as far as "buttering the toast with tears". You are correct. It is a very badly written book and I cannot imagine why the publisher didn't employ an editor, and if they did why that person didn't do their job. I am constantly amazed at how many badly written books get published. The whole concept of telling a story is lost these days and that applies to the cinema as well.

message 42: by Carolina (new)

Carolina I've never taken writing courses as many of you seem to have done--all I do is talk to real people. The book is written from the perspective of a 13-year-old, for Heaven's sake!! Ya'll strike me as a bit sanctimonious.....

message 43: by Ruth (new) - rated it 1 star

Ruth Ah, but it's not a 13 year old who's doing the writing. It's a writer who needs to put us in the mind of a teenager, and to do that the author needs to write well. Writing well has nothing to do with the age of the POV character.


message 44: by Glenda (new)

Glenda Sarah, this is just too funny. It was such a bleak and weird little book and you found a way to make it hilarious in review! Love what YOU wrote :>) Glenda

Annette Good lord, your review is spot on and hilarious.

message 46: by Patty (new)

Patty to Paul, if you still don't get it, "it" refers back to the closest noun prior in the sentence, according to structure, even if the result makes no sense.

message 47: by Paul (last edited Apr 24, 2008 06:39AM) (new)

Paul Bryant I see this review wins April's prize

message 48: by Patty (new)

Patty Apologies to Paul. I meant to address that note to Phillip.

message 49: by Jen (new)

Jen I thought when I picked it up it read like a cross between a lifetime movie and a bad porno! Lol!

Julie Just my two cents... I agree with Carolina up there in message 48. It is supposed to be a 13-year-old girl talking. I don't have any problem with Sebold's version of a 13-year-old's heaven, and I think a 13-year-old - or even a writer writing in the voice of a 13-year-old - can use nonsensical phrases like "ferocious olives" if she wants to.

Having said that, everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone can feel free to go on hating the book, or really liking it. :)

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