We gave it a C
In chapter 1 of Alice Sebold’s queasy and misguided second novel, The Almost Moon, middle-aged narrator Helen Knightly places bath towels over her elderly mother’s face and pushes ”until I felt the tip of her nose snap and saw the muscles of her body go suddenly slack and knew that she had died.” In chapter 2, she sizes up her accomplishment: ”my lifelong dream had come true.” Then, she bathes the naked corpse (”And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me. The cleft that had compelled the mystery of my father’s love for forty years”) and lugs it down to the basement deep freeze. When she concludes she can’t actually cut the body up, she settles for slicing off her mother’s silver braid, shoves it in her purse, and heads for home.
Alas, Alice Sebold’s follow-up to her bestselling debut The Lovely Bones 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. Sebold fully expects us to sympathize, and eventually even identify, with Helen a self-described ”dutiful daughter who suddenly finds her hand on top of a towel on top of your face, smashing that face in, something inside her hammering over and over again with a child’s vendetta finally fulfilled.” And sympathize we must, because Sebold spends the bulk of the book establishing Helen’s bedrock kindness, justifying her actions, and sanitizing her motivations.
Though this calm, intelligent woman smashes in her mother’s face, it is she whom Sebold casts as the novel’s true victim. In hazy flashbacks, we meet Helen’s weak, gentle father, who effectively abandoned her, and her narcissistic mother, a mean-spirited agoraphobe who aged into a needy, incontinent crone and vampirized her daughter’s life. Unforgivable, apparently — unlike Helen’s matricidal rage, which Sebold readily absolves. The ugly moral of this off-putting story: Mommie Dearest had it coming all along. C