bookrev: The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

The Almost MoonExtremely well written, scary subject matter handled like the pro she is

Let me get this out of the way up front: Alice Sebold is an extraordinary author. As a fellow writer, I learn a lot from both of her novels just walking through how she handles a scene, or a flashback, or a set of dialog.

Let me also get this out of the way: her subject matter bothers me on levels that I can barely describe. The Lovely Bones was extremely well-written, but, as a father with a daughter, it brought a parent’s nightmares to the page. The Almost Moon comes at your from a different tragic perspective, from a middle-aged mother who murders her dementia inflicted invalid mother.

The copy I have read is an Advanced Reading Copy graciously given to me at the recent Book Expo America, so the excerpts that I quote may change in the final copy (coming out in October 2007 according to the book’s cover).

The first paragraph of the first chapter sets the stage excellently for the entire book:

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old vase of flowers. She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life child, but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered.

For the next 24 hours, Helen Knightly confronts the events that unfold from the act she has committed and reflects on the events of her life that led her to this decision. Her relationships with her mother, father (who died before her mother), her two daughters, her ex-husband, her best friend and her best friend’s son all act as mirrors both past and present for the person Helen is, how low of an opinion she seems to have of herself, where that low opinion stems from and how it motivated her decision to kill her mother.

My friend John DeNardo at SF Signal has written that a reader/reviewer reads books and comments on them based on many characteristics: background, mood, etc.. Ms. Sebold’s novels certainly bring the reader’s family background into play. Having neither parent needing care nor suffering from dementia (at least not that I know of, and as the intro says, I’m the one hearing voices), the book’s plot shocked me, continues to shock me, and makes me think. I would surmise that a reader with a family history of taking care of dementia-sufferers or with some other reason to hate one of their parents would be less shocked, may have even contemplated similar actions (whether in fantasy and/or reality), but will also be made to think more by Ms. Sebold’s story.

The story made me think, even worry and I continue to roll it around in my head. That, combined with Alice Sebold’s wonderfully fluid prose:

It had been his illness as well as hers. She just garnered more attention. She was always – day in, day out – there. My father had been pity to her blame, warmth to her cold, but had he not, in the end, been colder than she?

Ms. Sebold has written two excellent novels of difficult subject matter that come off as immensely readable and leave the reader considering the actions in their own context. While I have not read her memoir, Lucky, I am motivated to do so now, to look at her own background and experiences.

Buy it at BOOKS, INC

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16 Responses

  1. Dale says:

    I can’t think of anything redemptive about killing someone who has dementia. I work at a nursing home where 40% of the residents have some form of dementia. They each have something vital, creative, unique and wonderful despite their confusion, lack of memory and frustrations. To dismiss them or to murder them is a crime of huge proportions. I never read “In Cold Blood,” where murderers were treated with compassion or sympathy, but I do not think I could find great sympathy in an inquiry into the workings of the mind and life of a woman who commits matricide.

    I am disappointed at the topical direction of Sebold’s writing craft. When will she leave the darkness of her past behind and walk into the light? She has known success and triumph, do these not hold any redemption for her?

    Sebold showed glimpses of healing in “Lovely Bones,” but the pain she experienced in “Lucky” still seems to have its way with her. It takes light to dispel darkness. More deeper, more profound darkness can never dispel darkness … it will only lead to confusion, disorder, anarchy. I will anxiously await her next offering though. Maybe she can flesh on some beauty from the lovely bones of her wounds.

    Shattered bones–as revealed in a topic of this sort– only give cry to desperate screams. Healing is the function and purpose of all great art. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Lecture: “A word of truth outweighs the world.” Truth contains darkness, knows darkness, but is not wholly defined by darkness. All truth gives representative witness to the light. I will read this work, as despicable to me as the topic is, because I am hooked by this author. But I will be looking for crumbs of redemption in a cavern of despair. There is no noble victim transcending suffering here … only a tragic mistake, a way of perseving illness that is both bankrupt and flawed. I hope that Sebold can remember the sufferings of the African American spirituals and truly Lift Her Voice and Sing through and despite the agony. I anxiously await her song.


  2. Katy says:

    Dale really needs to lighten up. It’s a fiction story, not a direct correlation to Alice’s life. Just read it if you want, and don’t read it if you don’t want to. It’s as simple as that. If Alice wants to write about the darkness her whole life, then so be it. Some people enjoy writing murder mysteries, some enjoy dramas, some enjoy children’s books. We all have something that moves us.

  3. Beth says:

    I have to say, this was a big let down. I love Lovely Bones, and was hoping for the best. I and several coworkers (we work in publishing), struggled to get through the first half. Not because of difficult writing, but because of boredom. The second hlaf is more fast paced, but there are some oddities that are just too… odd.

    Big dissapointment, waiting for Lovely Bones movie.

  4. nicole says:

    I read The Lovely Bones years ago and I couldn’t put it down. It was the greatest book I have read, at that point. My father passed away not long before I read the book, and I think it gave me a glimmer of hope that he was still in some way with me. In any case, I absolutely loved the story and the way it was written.

    Because of that, I had to get her book Lucky as soon as possible. I was somewhat upset when I was done with The Lovely Bones. I didn’t want it to end. I never read Lucky. I don’t remember how far I got, but it was not at all what I had expected and I was disappointed.

    Alice’s new book, however, looks to be like The Lovely Bones, and I cannot wait for it to come out!

    Is there really going to be a Lovely Bones movie?? I haven’t heard anything about it. Speaking of another author and book, Sue Monk Kidd’s book “The Secret Life of Bees” is another favorite of mine, and I heard that, too, is to be made into a movie.

    As for the comment by Dale- I wonder if he is dissapointed by Stephen King’s writing style, as well. I don’t think it gets any darker than that!

  5. admin says:

    Nicole, thanks for commenting. From what I have read, Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) has picked up The Lovely Bones, and a cast is being assembled for a 2008 release. Here is then entry at IMDB (…I am uncertain if the cast members they list are under contract or guesses.


  6. Caroline says:

    Alice Sebold is one of the most gifted and talented writers of this decade. The Lovely Bones was one of my favorite books, in fact I liked it so much, I recently was bored with the selection of best sellers on the list so I picked it up and read the whole thing in one sitting. Honestly, it was even better the second time around. I did read Lucky and felt that I should have read that book first before The Lovely Bones. Lucky gives insight to this author’s background and made me understand so much of why she will take the challenge and delve into topics that are so relevent in our society but somewhat of a secret. The other reason I loved The Lovely Bones is because I grew up in the same time period that Sebold describes in the Lovely Bones of Susie Salamon and also in the same neighborhood, so I could really relate on so many levels. It did make me feel a strange connection to believing that the dead really do watch over us. I am strongly anticipating the arrival of her new book in my mailbox any day and will give my two cents as soon as I read it.

  7. admin says:

    Caroline, thanks for your comment, and I look forward to hearing you thoughts on the book.

  8. natia says:

    i like tis novel, it’s not about alice

  9. Anonymous says:

    to dale, i don’t think you have any right to tell her how to handle the horrific memories of her rape. you have no idea what it’s like, so why would you give advice on a subject you are so very un-qualified for?

  10. meg says:

    i just finish reading The Almost Moon and went running to the computer to see how others felt about the ending—————-i agree with Beth in that it was tough to get into at the beginnning and then the second half caught my attention and couldn’t put this down———–and now I am so upset about the ending, so much detail all thru the book and then to leave us hanging. I think I’ll be giving Alice a break for a while.

  11. Melissa says:

    I, too just finished reading “The Almost Moon” ~ after having just finished “Lucky” and being prompted to do so by my love for ” Lovely Bones”. I struggled with “The Almost Moon” in the first half as I found the dialogue a bit hard to follow. It did speed up quite a bit and I couldn’t put it down. I am on this blog to see how others felt because I am a bit disappointed with the hanger at the end. I really wanted to know after being so intrigued by Helen’s character, how in the end, she would handle herself – or let herself be handled. We are left to question what happened in the end and I’m a bit frustrated.
    I love Alice Sebold – I am typically not the kind to read about such tough subject matter, and I admire her capability of tackling it in all of her books. I studied gerontology and in the past I have worked specifically with individuals with dementia and alzheimers – Alice tackled the burden that this disease has on adult children in the most extreme way I could ever imagine. As I read the book, and knowing my background I felt angry and mad at Helen and felt she was as crazed as her parents – if not more. I really wanted to know what Alice had planned for Helen …… I hope there is a part deux!

  12. Alyssa says:

    I loved the Lovely Bones and I’m not a big reader. Almost Moon however was a big disappointment. It is just as effective as The Lovely Bones but not as enjoyable.

  13. Andrea says:

    I indeed was extremely upset byt he subject matter from the onset – killing one’s mother is a horrific concept, an idea, but then committing this crime was even moreso frightening. However, I got it. I saw her frustration, her dislike for a mother who never gave her the love, affection and attention that a child requires to become a “normal” person. She had become a caretaker to her mother from the beginning of her life and this end to her mother’s life would have offered her freedom, which of course it did not.
    Superbly written. I thought it was spellbinding. A masterpiece of writing technique., and I didn’t mind the ending at all – I thought she would kill herself and be just like her father, copping out, but she didn’t. Good for her!

  14. Sherry says:

    I found The Almost Moon to be very disturbing. Is this what happens when a person is denied love from the person they want it from the most? My own mother died three years ago from cancer. It was tough and it was even harder to watch her deteriate. I can tell you this- I never wanted her to die. I loved my mom and no matter how much she put me through, I would give anything for her to be here today. It was a painful read but a thought provoking one.

  15. Bill says:

    I was also disappointed by The Almost Moon. Like many others, The Lovely Bones was one of my favorite reading experiences of all time. So I wanted to really love this new book. Helen was an interesting character because she did morally questionable things and was sympathetic, but I never figured out why I couldn’t completely get behind her. I felt she was too weak and her choices made me angry. I could accept the story – that she kills her mother who was suffering from dementia, but everything after that point was over the top. Sex with Natalie’s son, her scenes with Jake, and confessing to Sarah all made me wince. I wanted to feel for her – I wanted to understand, but instead, she made me angry. I loved the scene when she is posing for the class. And I loved the flashback with her father and the carvings. But I will never understand what changed her mind at the very end – actually, the fact that she was going to kill herself in the first place seemed so forced.

  16. Kathryn says:

    I really disliked the protagonist “Helen” right from the start. I am finding her a miserable, pathetic and weak human being. I could never be friends with such a sap as Helen. I am near the end of the book, and am hoping hoping hoping she commits suicide. If anyone should, it is her!

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