The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. Published in 2007.
Synopsis: While caring for her aging mother, Helen Knightly impulsively decides to smother her to death. The novel is played out over the next 24 hours following the murder, while at the same time intertwining the past histories of Helen, her parents, her children and her best friend.
About the Author: Best known as author of The New York Times best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold is also author of the memoir Lucky (about her experiences as a rape survivor during her freshman year at Syracuse University). She is a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at UC Irvine, and lives in California with her author-husband.
My Initial Reactions
I’ll admit that while brainstorming potential titles for Around the World Virtual Book Club selections, I got many ideas from authors I’ve previously enjoyed reading. Alice Sebold was one of them, as I was a huge fan of The Lovely Bones. However, in reading the synopsis of the book and reader reviews, I almost decided against adding this book to the list. The reader reviews were overwhelmingly negative, with over one-third of the reviewers giving this book only 1 star and the critics’ reviews were ugly.
While I did not find this book to be an incredible page-turner, I did think that it was quite well-written. I am left in wonderment why so many people hated it. Could it be the dark subject matter, the stream-of-consciousness writing, or the difficulty in topping The Lovely Bones? Do I need to remind readers that a young girl being raped and murdered and her killer never captured isn’t the most cheery of subject matters either?
One of the things I find unique to Sebold’s novels is that all of the drama is spilled out in the first chapter, and the remainder of the books involve the protagonists coming to terms with their fate. In The Lovely Bones, in the first paragraph we learn that the protagonist was murdered, and we shortly thereafter learn who her murderer is. Half-way through the book it becomes clear that her killer will never be caught. There is no mystery. The story is more about Susie coming to terms with her death and her family moving on.
In the first chapter of The Almost Moon, we witness Helen killing her mother. The disturbing nature of the book continues, and I think one of the most disturbing elements is that it is told as a first person narrative. From Helen’s eyes, we see her meticulously washing her dead mother’s body, cutting off her braid to keep as a souvenir, decidedly storing her in a meat locker, running off to have sex with her best friend’s son who is 20 years her junior, going to work as if nothing happened. The real mystery of this novel is who is the most mentally ill – Helen or her mother?
I really hope that the poor reviews don’t keep Alice Sebold off the scene for too much longer. She is definitely a writer that I would like to read more of.
So what did you think of the book? Did you love it or hate it and/or find it incredibly disturbing? What did you think of Helen’s motives for killing her mother? At the end of the novel, do you think she made the right decisions? Have you also read The Lovely Bones and/or Lucky, or was this your first Sebold book? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Next Up for Discussion: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Discussion begins January 27th.
“The Almost Moon” is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I took a quick look at the reviews on Amazon too, and I was surprised how much people hated it. It seems like people disliked the book because they didn’t find Helen a sympathetic character, but a book doesn’t have to have a likable character in order to be good. (I’m reminded of “Vanity Fair” – a novel without a hero).
To me, it seemed liked Helen killed her mother as a result of a lifetime of anger towards her, not because she was having difficulty caring for her in her old age. The murder isn’t justified, but I can understand how Helen got to that point. I agreed with Jake when he told Helen she could have walked away and had her mother put in a nursing home instead of killing her, but I also know how difficult it can be to leave a parent, even if the parent in question has been terrible to you your whole life.
Perhaps this book was so rejected because there is little understanding and support for people with mental illness and those who care for them. Helen and her father can only take her mother out of the house if they shroud her in blankets first. When the neighbors see this, they all turn away. Maybe if they hadn’t scorned Helen’s family, Helen wouldn’t have ended up in the place that she did.