Monday, November 12, 2007

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
Little-Brown, 2007
Fiction; 291 pgs

Completed: 11/12/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

Reason for Reading: Although I had always planned to read this book, having enjoyed the author’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, I admit that I was in no hurry after reading some rather scathing reviews of The Almost Moon. My boss made me promise not to buy the book for myself a couple of months ago, saying that she would buy it and loan it to me after she read it.

About a month before the book’s release, she told me about a review she read that made her change her mind. This was not a book she wanted to read, she told me. And yet she did just that. She thrust the book in my hands the beginning of this past week and told me to hurry up and read it and then pass it on to another colleague of ours she is insisting read the book. She refused to give me a hint as to whether or not she liked the book. I imagine I will find out soon enough.

This is my first selection for the Just4thehelluvit Challenge.

Comments: A book—a story—can have several different purposes. It can affect each individual reader in a different way. Much of the criticism I have heard in regard to Alice Sebold’s latest book centers around the characters and just how difficult they are to like or relate to. I imagine that has a lot to do with the decisions that they make, especially the protagonist of the novel, Helen Knightly.

Helen drops everything and attends to her mother, whose health is failing, when called by the kindly neighbor who checks in now and then. It appears that Helen’s mother, who suffers from dementia, is worse off than before, and Helen comes to the realization that her mother can no longer go on like she has been. As she is preparing to bath her mother before calling an ambulance, Helen finds herself standing over the woman who she has loved and hated all her life and takes the life out of her, stifling her with a towel. Helen now must decide what to do next and the journey she takes, both in memory and in struggling with what she has just done, carries the reader through the rest of the novel. It is a dark, tragic and compelling story.

What struck me most about Helen is that she comes across at times as unfeeling and yet that is far from the truth. To outsiders and even her own family and friends, she may appear cold and judgmental. However, on the inside, Helen is a wounded soul. She keeps herself at a distance from people and even from herself, in part a result of her upbringing and by means of a coping mechanism she has never overcome. Her childhood had been full of secrets, that big white elephant in the living room that no one ever talked about, and parents who never quite gave her the attention she so craved. Helen carried some of this with her into her adulthood, and it had an impact on her own family, her children and her marriage.

Helen’s mother is the character I found myself feeling most sorry for. She suffered from a mental illness and was the least understood. She lashed out at those around her to exert some control over her life, often causing pain and suffering to those closest to her. She is not an easy woman to sympathize with as a result. The father seemed more together and even more likeable than his daughter and his wife, however, he too carried a heavy weight on his shoulders and struggled with his own mental health issues.

This is not the first difficult subject Alice Sebold has taken on. Her books Lucky and The Lovely Bones have both earned praise and criticism over the years. They deal with subject matters that are not easy to digest. The Almost Moon is no different. Her latest novel is beautifully written and yet a very disturbing and uncomfortable book to read. If the reader can first get past that, it makes for an interesting case study.

The overwhelming feeling I felt throughout the novel was one of great sadness for all of the characters. Certain of life’s events could not be helped or controlled, others could—as humans we all make choices, and not always the best ones. What Helen did, killing her mother, was horrific. Not a moment, not a word, went by when I hoped she would get away with it. The cumulating of events and leading up to her mother’s death, offer a glimpse into the motivation and why of it all. It is not an excuse but a possible reason to her actions.

I have a feeling I will be in the minority of readers who actually liked this book. It is not an easy book to read, and it will not leave the reader feeling uplifted in any way. It is not a book of hope, but one of tragedy and pain. This is not a book for everyone.

Listen to a NPR interview with the author. Be forewarned; it is full of spoilers.


  1. Thanks for the great review, Wendy! I almost picked up this book when I went bookshopping over the weekend... now after reading your review makes me want to pick up the book, again!! Hehe.

  2. Hi Wendy, this sounds like my type of book. I like compelling storyline. Like Melody I have been contemplating buying the book. I was at Kinokuniya last weekend and was holding the book, thinking about the potential acquisition.

    I think I have a few books to buy... Atonement and this one. Thanks for the wonderful review.

  3. I was also thinking about purchasing, having loved The Lovely Bones, but will get from the local library now. You many books, so little money! :D

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed this (more than I did!). You're articulated so well what was good about this book - the writing - which I agree with. I just couldn't get past the rest. It will be interesting to see what others think, as well.

  5. I have also read some not so good reviews about this book but I don't know I find that I really do want to read it now. I will see if my library has it. I would imagine that this would be a good book to discuss with a book group don't you think?

  6. This is on my list of books to read. I'm on the wait list on the library. I'm really curious about it now!!!


  7. Excellent review!! This is the main reason I stay away from so-called professional literary reviews. I tend to take what my blogger friends say a little more to heart.

    I'm glad you did like it although I'm not sure it's really my cup of tea!

  8. I've been eyeing this book lately, too. Thanks for the review, they're always great.

    Ugh and it reminds me how behind on my reviewing I am!

  9. I'm so conflicted about reading this. I loved "The Lovely Bones" (my 17 year old son is reading it right now), but seems like every review I read of this one says something different. Opinion is split down the middle, it seems.

    Ach, who am I kidding? I'll end up reading this eventually. Thanks for the review. I'll keep in mind that you liked it.

  10. I hope to get this when it is out in paperback. I still haven't read The Lovely Bones, but I hope to next year. Sounds like an interesting one.

  11. This sounds like one of those books you really have to be in the right frame of mind to read. My mother had dementia (early-onset Alzheimer's), so I suspect this would be a tough one for me, but your review makes it sound intriguing. Then again, I still haven't gotten around to reading The Lovely Bones, so this one may wait for quite awhile.

  12. Melody - You are more than welcome. :-) I hope you will find it worthwhile.

    Alice - It's a tempting book to try, I know, but at the same time, I can understand some of the reluctance people have. I hope you do like it if you decide to read it! Atonement is definitely worth trying.

    Maggie - I think getting this one at the local library is a wise choice. That way, if you hate it, you didn't waste any money on it.

    Tara - I know what you mean. I can't help but wonder if the author purposely set out to create a main character that was difficult to like. Everything that took place--it's not an easy read. At least in terms of comfort level.

    Iliana - I think this would be a great discussion book for a book club or buddy read. I couldn't wait to run into my boss today to discuss it with her. It's one of those books you feel the need to talk about.

    Amy - It helped me going in knowing that the characters weren't ones I would necessarily like and that I might be disturbed by some of what I read. Sometimes knowing things like can make all the difference in whether I enjoy a book or not.

    Stephanie - Yes, I totally agree. I've read only a couple of blogger reviews so far about this book, one favorable and the other not so much so. This is the type of book I'd probably be very selective about who I would recommend it to.

    Nik - Thanks. I was kind of glad my boss decided to buy it and loan it to me because it took the decision out of my hands. I was really going back and forth on this one, although I knew I'd eventually read it.

    Kookie - I've noticed that too--the split down the middle. I knew in the end I'd have to see for myself. I just hadn't expected I'd be reading it as soon as I did. :-)

    Rhinoa - Paperback is a good choice. I really liked The Lovely Bones, and hope you will too. It's definitely worth giving a try.

    Florinda - Oh, definitely, I agree.

    My grandmother had dementia (great woman--nothing like the woman in the book) and at one point during the first chapter, I started thinking of my grandmother when the author was describing Helen's mother facial features due to the dementia. I had to stop reading, and push that thought out of my head quickly. If I wanted to get through the book, the last thing I needed to do was put my grandmother in there. I do think that The Almost Moon is an intriguing read. I've always been fascinated by human behavior and motivations and this book fell within those lines.

  13. For some reason I had always assumed that Alice Sebold was not for me, but your review has changed my mind. This sounds like a disturbing but very compelling book, and definitely one I'd like to read.

    Thank you for this beautiful review.

  14. Nymeth - Thank you! She definitely writes about difficult topics. I think that what makes this one so much more powerful is that the narrator is Helen. I don't think the book could have been as effective any other way.

  15. Right, this has been added to my TBR pile. ;)

  16. Great review. While I don't think this book is one that I want to read at this time, I will keep it mind for the future.

  17. Framed - Thank you. It's better to wait until you're ready for it, I think. :-)

  18. I finished the book and as you've rightly said, there might be only a handful who would appreciate the book and I am one of them. You are also right to say when you commented that it is better to wait until one is ready for it. It took me the second attempt to finish it. The first time I tried reading it I was too stressed out to appreciate the story due to my own situation, but now, I appreciate it.

  19. Alice - I am glad you were able to get through it the second time. It is a very powerful book.

  20. I have read all Jane Sebolds books, and love all of them.
    The almost moon was the hardest to get into, but once I did, I fell in love with it.
    I think its a shame people give it such bad reviews, it is an amazing story, and if you actually give it a chance it will not dissapoint.

  21. Melissa Ann - I think Alice Sebold is such a talented author. I am glad you enjoyed this one too.

    I think because it is such a difficult subject matter, some readers do have a hard time getting past that. It's a shame, but not every book is going to be liked by everyone.


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