One-Minute Book Reviews

November 14, 2007

Is Alice Sebold Turning Into the Howard Stern of Popular Fiction?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:33 am
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Charlotte Moore says that the first line of The Almost Moon is there “purely to grab attention,” and she doesn’t think much of what follows, either

By Janice Harayda

Alice Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, sold million of copies, but I read only a few pages before being put off partly by the tabloid-worthy premise: MURDERED CHILD TELLS STORY FROM HEAVEN! And I haven’t been able to get her second, The Almost Moon (Little, Brown, $24.95), from the library, because a lot of people here are reading it for one of those one-size-fits-all programs designed to get everybody in town to read the same book.

Until I can track down a copy, you might like to read the comments of a critic for a British weekly who raised points that I haven’t seen mentioned in the American reviews. Charlotte Moore wrote of The Almost Moon (“Deadened by Shock”) in the Oct. 31 issue of The Spectator:

“Its essential flaw is contained in its opening sentence: ‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ This is eye-catching … But like the rest of the novel it doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

“‘When all is said and done’ evokes a folksy storytelling style, but does it mean anything? Who is ‘saying and doing’, exactly? It’s just padding; the second half of the sentence could stand alone. Except it couldn’t because, unpadded, we might notice that the opening is contradicted by what actually happens. The narrator, Helen Knightly, takes ages to decide what to do with her demented, incontinent mother; when at last she smothers her with towels, it’s not easy at all. It’s a struggle, as you’d expect. And the remaining 277 pages go into minute detail about just how difficult it is to know what to do with yourself while you’re waiting for the cops to discover that you have murdered your mother. Nothing easy about it.

“The justification of that opening sentence, then, is purely to grab attention. This speciousness infects the prose throughout. Nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.”

I don’t know if I’ll agree with these comments. But I love the force and clarity of Moore’s writing in this review — especially in contrast to how so many American critics have danced around the flaws they saw in the novel. Awfully persuasive in just a few paragraphs, isn’t it?

You can read the rest of the review at

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I too, like the power of this review. As for Sebold’s work, “The Lovely Bones” is one of those books that has stared at me off the shelves many times, and I’ve never quite been moved to buy it. I think I was worried it was teetering on “chick-lit”, as the awful non-PC phrase goes. That said, perhaps Moore (no relation!) is scraping the tip of a nasty iceberg with her observations; is quality literature beginning to succumb to the same insidious dumbing-down that has succeeded in pervading our television? Let us hope not.

    Comment by kevmoore — November 14, 2007 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  2. The dumbing-down is definitely going on, though whether it’s intentional or unintentional is hard to say. The clearest recent example was “Mister Pip,” the Man Booker finalist written at a third-grade level. But many writers — and Sebold may be one — have the opposite problem: a straining for an affected high tone. You see this in so many writers who came out of prestigious writing programs such as UC/Irvine, where Sebold studied.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 14, 2007 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  3. I really enjoyed Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and her memoir “Lucky”, but this is the 3rd negative review I’ve read of “ALmost Moon”, so I doubt I will be reading this. Thanks.

    Comment by lisamm — November 14, 2007 @ 1:51 pm | Reply

  4. Lisa: I wonder if “Lucky” might be the best place for people to begin if they’re interested in Sebold? In fiction Sebold seems to favor over-the-top concepts that are harder to make plausible than more realistic plots.

    I haven’t read “Lucky.” But maybe you have some ideas on that one? Thanks so much for your comment.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 14, 2007 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  5. I’m not sure. It’s non-fiction but it reads like a novel. ‘Lucky’ is about Sebold’s rape in college and the trial afterward, and how she became a heroin addict for many years. The book begins with the rape scene, and it is intense. The title refers to a policeman telling Sebold she is ‘lucky’ because a girl was killed in the same tunnel where she was raped, however she feels anything but lucky. None of this answers your question! I’m sorry. It’s been a very long time since I read ‘The Lovely Bones’, so it’s hard for me to compare the two. I read TLB first, then ‘Lucky’ a few years later. Enjoyed both but felt ‘Lucky’ was a better book.

    Comment by lisamm — November 15, 2007 @ 2:22 am | Reply

  6. Actually, I think that does answer the question. In my experience it’s always best to start with an author’s best book (unless you’re reading a series in which the same character reappears, in which case you probably want to start with the book in which the character is introduced).

    Starting with the worst book, even by a great author, can keep you away from that author forever. I love “Moby-Dick.” But I might never have read it if I hadn’t read it before “The Confidence Man,” where Melville really runs out of gas. And if you think “Lucky” was better than “The Lovely Bones,” I’d bet a lot of others would, too …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 15, 2007 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  7. It’s a shame to see prospective writers going to “prestigious writing programs” where they become ruined by the worst of the status quo. I like Charlotte Moore’s analysis of the opening sentence, a sentence that–no doubt—would receive rave reviews in the seminar called “Buzz-worthy opening lines.”


    Comment by knightofswords — November 15, 2007 @ 10:25 pm | Reply

  8. “Buzz-worthy opening lines” is a good phrase for it. I’ve seen lots of first sentences that had much more potential for buzz than substance. Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 15, 2007 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

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