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The Almost Moon: A Novelby Alice Sebold
Synopses & Reviews
When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.
So begins The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold's astonishing, brilliant, and daring new novel. A woman steps over the line into the unthinkable in this unforgettable work by the author of The Lovely Bones and Lucky.
For years Helen Knightly has given her life to others: to her haunted mother, to her enigmatic father, to her husband and now grown children. When she finally crosses a terrible boundary, her life comes rushing in at her in a way she never could have imagined.
Unfolding over the next twenty-four hours, this searing, fast-paced novel explores the complex ties between mothers and daughters, wives and lovers; the meaning of devotion; and the line between love and hate. It is a challenging, moving, gripping story, written with the fluidity and strength of voice that only Alice Sebold can bring to the page.
"Sebold's disappointing second novel (after much-lauded The Lovely Bones) opens with the narrator's statement that she has killed her mother. Helen Knightly, herself the mother of two daughters and an art class model old enough to be the mother of the students who sketch her nude figure, is the dutiful but resentful caretaker for her senile 88-year-old mother, Clair. One day, traumatized by the stink of Clair's voided bowels and determined to bathe her, Helen succumbs to 'a life-long dream' and smothers Clair, who had sucked 'the life out of [Helen] day by day, year by year.' After dragging Clair's corpse into the cellar and phoning her ex-husband to confess her crime, Helen has sex with her best friend's 30-year-old 'blond-god doofus' son. Jumping between past and present, Sebold reveals the family's fractured past (insane, agoraphobic mother; tormented father, dead by suicide) and creates a portrait of Clair that resembles Sebold's own mother as portrayed in her memoir, Lucky. While Helen has clearly suffered at her mother's hands, the matricide is woefully contrived, and Helen's handling of the body and her subsequent actions seem almost slapstick. Sebold can write, that's clear, but her sophomore effort is not in line with her talent." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Alice Sebold makes us listen to women we don't want to listen to: a rape victim, a murdered teenager and, now, a daughter who's smothered her elderly mother to death. She attends to the kinds of people who, historically, have been doubted, ignored or shamed into silence. She can describe shocking acts of violence and long periods of recovery in prose that is at once deeply sympathetic and surprisingly... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) maudlin-free. 'The Lovely Bones' was phenomenally popular in 2002, enough to relaunch her previously published memoir, 'Lucky,' onto the paperback best-seller list. That vast fan base essentially guarantees instant success for her new novel, 'The Almost Moon.' No one ever wanders into a book by Sebold wondering what it's about. None of that dilatory scene setting for her. It's as though she imagines her books posted on a crowded homepage competing for attention: 'Lucky' begins: 'In the tunnel where I was raped. ...' The Lovely Bones risks delaying that punch for a single sentence: 'My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered. ...' And 'The Almost Moon' opens with this whopper: 'When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.' Yes, there's something suspiciously salacious about this technique, but in Sebold's defense I think it reflects her refusal to play these horrors for cheap suspense. She wants to get immediately beyond the violence and focus on what really interests her: how survivors deal with trauma. Unfortunately, that approach works far less successfully in 'The Almost Moon,' in which her attention has shifted, for the first time, from victim to perpetrator. The novel takes place in a single day and tells the story of Helen Knightly, a middle-aged woman who cares for her mother, a cancer survivor who's severely agoraphobic. 'For more than twenty years, with greater or lesser diligence,' she tells us, 'I had been attending to her, rushing over when she called saying her heart would burst, or taking her on increasing rounds of doctors' visits.' In the opening scene, a distinctly unpleasant one, Helen goes over to her mother's house and finds the old woman has lost control of her mind and bowels. 'She had not, as I may have momentarily hoped, died,' Helen says. 'I knew I was going to have to call the ambulance. I knew, as I had for some time, that my mother was heading out of this life, but I did not want her arriving at the hospital caked in (excrement).' As her mother passes in and out of consciousness, Helen tries to move her to the bathroom, but she can't carry the 88-year-old woman upstairs. Using some towels as a sleigh, she drags her into the kitchen, then out to the porch, but it's futile, disgusting and depressing. 'There is no excuse to give,' Helen confesses. 'I smashed these downy towels into my mother's face. Once begun, I did not stop.' This subject is tragically relevant to millions of people — mostly women — who find themselves waving goodbye to their adult children just in time to take in their declining parents. And continuing advances in the treatment of disease will surely swell the number of families forced to care for relatives who have outlived any semblance of an enjoyable life. Helen is acting out a paranoid nightmare for elderly parents and a forbidden fantasy for their burdened children. But 'The Almost Moon' lacks the sensitivity and depth to carry off its dramatic opening or explore the complex issues it raises. As a narrator, Helen is never sufficiently sympathetic to plead her own case nor insightful enough to explain it. The murder and Helen's bumbling efforts to dispose of the body strike weirdly discordant tones: 'Arsenic and Old Lace' one minute, a geriatric snuff film the next. The intimacy of Helen's efforts to clean her dead mother sounds almost sacramental, but the scene is interrupted with sardonic little jokes and asides. All of this might make some creepy psychological sense in the hands of Joyce Carol Oates or Donna Tartt, but here we're left with a narrator who can't convey or even imply the magnitude of what she's doing. Sebold has shown herself capable of these tonal inconsistencies before. The dreadful love scene toward the end of 'The Lovely Bones' was a cringe-inducing blooper that ruined the novel for some readers. But the problems in 'The Almost Moon' are far more pervasive. Poised over her mother in the basement, Helen says, 'I had never thought of how one cut up a body, only of the freedom to be had postsevering. The grisly reality of the sawing and the butchering had never preoccupied me. It was the instant flash, the twitched nose of "Bewitched," the magic of going from having my mother to not having her that held me in its thrall.' That cute reference to Elizabeth Montgomery reminds me of the scene in 'Native Son' when Bigger Thomas stuffs Mary's body in the furnace and thinks about 'Gilligan's Island.' Hijinks ensue! All this might have worked if we got some sense that Helen were slipping into psychosis or at least felt a little panic. Instead, she moves like a woman worried about overestimating her deductions on last year's taxes. The meandering story that develops over the next 24 hours is a mishmash of ludicrous plans for escape, laughably implausible trysts with her best friend's son, a 'blond-god doofus,' and predictably unhappy memories of life with Mommie Dearest. Several sections of 'The Almost Moon' demonstrate that Sebold can still write beautiful, haunting scenes, but there are enough jarring missteps here to make anyone wonder why she sabotages herself. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The pace is superb, a slow tease that alternates between calm, reflective flashbacks and tense, tight descriptions of Helen's attempts to hide her crime and avoid the police....A daring, devastating novel; highly recommended." Library Journal
"[A]n emotionally raw novel that is, at times, almost too painful to read....Sebold brings to the portrait such honesty and empathy that many will find their own dark impulses reflected here; however, it is so unremittingly bleak that it seems unlikely that it will be greeted with the same enthusiasm as her debut." Booklist
"[A]nnoying, unconvincing and deeply perplexing. Although it shares some themes with Ms. Sebold's acclaimed best seller, The Lovely Bones...this volume demonstrates none of the psychological acuity or emotional chiaroscuro of that earlier book." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[A]nother home run, a story with a plot wholly different from The Lovely Bones but just as beautifully constructed, fearless and fast-paced....[A] breathless read....
"Alas, Alice Sebold's follow-up to her bestselling debut...is not the grisly sexed-up gothic it initially appears, but a banal and earnest family psychodrama about crummy parents and the wounded children who hate them. (Grade: C)" Entertainment Weekly
"The book does have its flaws, but more on the scale of blips than full narrative derailments....Along with its buoying dark wit, it is this eerily familiar blurred line between sane and insane that makes The Almost Moon simultaneously uncomfortable and absorbing." San Francisco Chronicle
"Several sections of The Almost Moon demonstrate that Sebold can still write beautiful, haunting scenes, but there are enough jarring missteps here to make anyone wonder why she sabotages herself." The Washington Post Book World
"Sebold writes just as beautifully here, with the same knack for stating truths page after page....This novel is a fiercely written, risky work, and it is, by its very nature, unpleasant." Houston Chronicle
"Despite the promise deep in The Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon turns out to be almost bad, dull at the least, and that's a shame." Miami Herald
"[W]hile she is capable of astute observation and some intriguing sentences, reading The Almost Moon is akin to swallowing bile....When you are tempted [to pick up The Almost Moon] at the bookstore or the library, please remember two words: 'Vomit City.'" Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Moon is so antic, so over the top that you keep turning the pages in a frenzy of disbelief....Is there a literary prize for most cringe-worthy sentence in a single work of fiction?" USA Today
"[A] story that no one other than Chuck Palahniuk would ever call 'heartwarming.'" Christian Science Monitor
When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. So begins Alice Sebold's astonishing, brilliant, and daring new novel, in which a woman steps over the line into the unthinkable in this unforgettable work by the author of The Lovely Bones.
About the Author
Alice Sebold is the bestselling author of The Lovely Bones and Lucky: A Memoir. She lives in California with her husband, the novelist Glen David Gold.
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