[P]lucky to Survive

I remember reading Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones and thinking it was a spectacular book, but that the writer must have something very dark inside her to write it. It wasn’t a judgment, but an exploratory and rather sad thought on my part.

When I read Sebold’s memoir, I learned where that darkness originated. Lucky is the story of the tragedy that happened to her: she was raped while a freshman at college. After the rape, a police officer told Sebold about another girl who had been killed after her rape, and that Sebold was lucky. Imagine how that word lucky must have sounded to her!

The book starts right off with the rape. This hooks the reader . . . swiftly and absolutely. The rest of the book describes how this experience affected her life, as well as how the rapist was eventually captured and tried. The book has all the “high drama” elements: inadequate responses of family and friends, the emotional terrain, and the legal process.

It’s hard to isolate what I learned from this book, but I’ll go with how it put me in Sebold’s life so that I felt as I were experiencing all that she had experienced. She wasn’t lucky at all, but she was very plucky, both her immediate response to the rape and the aftermath were plucky.

I also learned something about book structure. As a nonfiction writer, I see that it can be very powerful to begin a book with the most intense scene. In this case, everything else that happens in the book is because the protagonist was raped, so it all springs from that initial event. It seems as if the book can only be structured this way, but in lesser hands, I can imagine that the writer might think that putting the rape scene first would be:

  1. “too much” (grandstanding)
  2. wasting the best scene at the beginning (how can the rest of the book hold up after the bar is set that high?)
  3. not really the beginning (after all, the fact that Sebold was still a virgin–and why–adds to the story, right?)

These are all useless worries. The rape belongs at the beginning, and because it is at the beginning, it lurks underneath every scene after it. That makes the whole book that much more powerful!

38 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

38 responses to “[P]lucky to Survive

  1. I learned about Alice’s life after reading her novel and knowing something was special about this writer. You summed it up so well with the plucky word. I hope to read her memoir soon.

  2. When ‘The Lovely Bones’ movie was promoted in Germany, the reason why Alice Sebold wrote the book was provided as well. I haven’t read her memoir so far. It is now added to my TBR list.

    • Luanne

      I have never seen the movie. At some point I must have decided I didn’t want to see it. The idea of visual images taking over for my mental images is disturbing to me. Or maybe it’s the story that’s disturbing haha.

  3. Yay! A book I don’t need to add to my TBR list, Luanne. 🙂 You’re right, it was a powerful book.

    • Luanne

      I’m so glad you recommend it, too, Jill! And what a relief, huh? hahaha, My book pile kind of gives me anxiety sometimes ;).

  4. A great insight into the mind of a great writer! I’ll read this memoir.

  5. Thanks for this analysis and the importance of grabbing your readers with the most intense scene. I’m a writer of fiction but can see how this structure can also work in fiction. That’s a memoir on MTR list 🙂

  6. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    When I wrote my memoir, I used as the opening chapter the scene of my dad’s death. The opening paragraph was an explanation of what happens to the body when you die away from home; when you die in a traumatic accident; when you take someone with you on your way out of this world. I never understood why it needed to be written this way, but I knew it did, even though, as you said, I was using up my best scene. Thanks for identifying the “lurking” effect. Putting this chapter first gives the reader the knowledge that allows the irony infusing the rest of the memoir to work.

    • Luanne

      That makes perfect sense, Ellen! Would you mind posting a link to your book here so that I can get it–and in case anyone else wants to, also?

      • Ellen Morris Prewitt

        Thank you for the offer, Luanne—I had three chapters from the memoir published but never the whole book. I need to get back to it and really finish it—this series has been very helpful and inspiring. (This is as close as I could get to finding one of the published chapters on-line: bit.ly/1iIM7Qx )

        • Luanne

          It’s just an excerpt? Can I get into the site for the whole piece? Three chapters published, but not the book? You absolutely have to finish it!

  7. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    Well, that didn’t work. Maybe this will (sorry for junking things up) https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/river_teeth/v005/5.2prewitt.html

    • Luanne

      Haha, OK, I just posted above because I couldn’t get the whole thing. I’ll go print it and hopefully read tonight!

      • Luanne

        Nope, it still is only an excerpt!

        • Ellen Morris Prewitt

          Yes, the chapters were published in print almost ten years ago (River Teeth, Alaska Quarterly Review, and North Dakota Quarterly—what my husband calls my Frozen Tundra niche). I don’t think any of the essays are in full on-line. This was as close as I could find—just an excerpt.

    • Luanne

      Ellen! This is exactly the kind of story I love to read. It’s a wonderful opening. I want more. I feel like the orphans in Oliver, chanting for PLEASE, SIR (MA’AM), MORE!

  8. This sounds like another winner! I have such a long reading list now.

  9. Wonderful analysis, Luanne! I’ve read both Lovely Bones and Lucky, and in that order. Lucky was harder to get through just because it was a memoir, not a fiction. Sebold doesn’t hold back on how that experience, that violation, affected her self-image, her relationships, and almost destroyed her future. She is a great storyteller, and I’m grateful that she told her story.

    • Luanne

      Well put, Marie! Yes, it did almost destroy her future. That was the hardest part of the book for me–the last part of it . . . .

  10. I still haven’t read the Lovely Bones, but I’m staring at it on my bookshelf right now. It’s just moved up on my TBR list and I’m adding Lucky too. It’s said you shouldn’t start in the middle of the action, but once again we have a writer successfully breaking the rules. I love it when that happens 🙂

  11. Interesting timing on your structure comments – this is an issue I’m currently working through on a fiction project. I found Ellen’s comments helpful, also.

    • Luanne

      I’m glad you found a little help with a very very difficult issue. I find structure to be the most daunting part of writing. Ellen’s comments are good and the beginning of her piece about her father is beautiful. I hope she drags it out and finishes the book!

  12. Luanne, I appreciate your insightful review of Sebold’s story structure. I have read Lovely Bones and though it was “dark”, it was a compelling and chilling read. Eerie to know it was based on truths from her past. Now you have enticed me to read her memoir! I am in the final edit stage of my own memoir ( still deciding on the title) and have chosen to start it with my most intense scene. I’m hoping readers will feel like it works!

    • Luanne

      Kathy, yes, it actually made me understand where she was coming from with the novel by reading the memoir. I don’t know whether it comforted me or destroyed me, if that makes sense. That sounds like a great idea to start your story that way. I hope to read your book one day!

  13. Nice observations. I read Lovely Bones and embraced the writing, cringed over the subject at times. BUT I remember exactly where I was when reading it (stuck on a plane in Chicago during a snow storm) and it was so well-written, it helped me escape from the plane and into Sebold’s world. I wasn’t going to read Lucky because of its subject, but thanks to your review, I’ve just ordered it for my Kindle.

    • Luanne

      Ah, enjoy! Thanks for coming over here and letting me know you’re going to read Lucky! It’s quite a different read, of course, than the novel, but grabbed and held on to my attention throughout all the twists and turns of the case. Fascinating story. I visited your blog and loved the post on moving away and living in a small town! I moved away also but now live in a city. I get nostalgic for my hometown, but know I couldn’t live there.

  14. When I read THE LOVELY BONES, I had bought the book in an airport an hour before departure. When I landed at my destination, it was the first time I resented the intrusion of an arrival. LUCKY was the same way but more personal and frightening because a good friend’s sister had been brutally raped and than beaten with a baseball bat. She never had closure as her rapist was never caught, and she’s lived the rest of her life checking doors, windows, closets and under beds. Sebold gave rape a face and a journey and hint of survival.

    • Luanne

      Marylin, oh my gosh, I’m so sorry about your friend’s sister! How horrific. We know it’s horrific for her, but look at all the people around her it affected too, including you. Sebold’s story does give hope for how it all turns out. You’ve made me realize it doesn’t happen that way for everyone, even if she survives physically. How very sad.

    • Marylin, I was rereading comments on Luanne’s post, when I saw this horrible story. I am so saddened about your best friend’s sister’s beating and rape. I had a friend, crossing BGSU’s campus while petite and only 18 years old, pulled behind a building and raped. For her, it was a tough situation because she was not beat but did become pregnant. She swore repeatedly that her parents would disown her, that she could not have the baby, (not that it matters but it would have been mixed racially) and she wanted to abort it. My Mom, who was a high school teacher, came up to BG, traveled with us both to Detroit, Michigan and signed consent for the abortion. This horror of choosing that path, tends to haunt my friend, more than the rape. I try to tell her that God knows her heart and regrets. She worries about the consequences of Hell. Unfortunately, she is in her own personal one, as it is. Hope it is ok. to respond to this and sorry about how these things haunt the ones who are hurt. Robin

  15. I was deeply sad during the whole book of Lovely Bones. I do think capturing your audience is important but building from the beginning of a life, can be challenging to find the ‘hook.’ I know you will succeed in this, Luanne! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      Thank you so much, Robin, for your vote of confidence! The Lovely Bones is a very very sad book. I kept asking myself why I was reading it, but I couldn’t stop!!

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