lovely bonesI don’t mind reading best sellers. In fact, I like some pretty mainstream authors who a lot of “students of literature” might look down on. Especially after reading a few heavy classics, I love to read something fast moving and plot driven – something by Stephen King, James Ellroy, or J. K. Rowling, for instance. If I see a lot of people reading some book on the train and in the park, I assume that there must be something there worth looking into and check it out.

But.

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.

She doesn’t create a world I believe in. I can handle magical realism. I can handle science fiction. Hell, I can even handle the idea that when we die we go to heaven and look down on our relatives. But the worlds that are created have to be consistent and believable. It seems that she makes up rules for her world as the story goes on and as she needs to force her characters to do certain things. It’s like she’s an insane god lording over the pages of the book. By the end, it’s almost scary.

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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