It is not without a dash of schadenfreude that I rounded up the largely negative critical assessments of Oprah's Book Club darling Alice Sebold's long-anticipated novel The Almost Moon. I thought Sebold's runaway best-seller, The Lovely Bones, managed to make pedophilia schlocky: Lolita by way of Hallmark. The Almost Moon appears to have shed the sentimentality that marred Bones, but replaced it with canned musings on the nature of insanity.
Moon tells the story of Helen Knightly, a miserable middle-aged woman who offs her infirm mother, Clair, at the beginning of the novel and then spends the rest of the book dealing with the repercussions. NY Times critic Michiko Kakutani and company sharpen their claws after the jump.
The New York Times:
While the remainder of the novel presumably aims to explain why Helen committed this horrific act, it instead leaves the reader thinking that Helen and her mother are both insane. And not insane in any particularly interesting or novel way: just plain old generic nuts. Unfortunately, neither these musings nor Helen's stilted descriptions of her unhappy childhood make the crime she has committed any more comprehensible. And neither turn Helen from a generic, high-concept madwoman into a recognizable human being.
Is there a literary prize for most cringe-worthy sentence in a single work of fiction?
- 'And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me.'
- 'This was not the first time I'd been face-to-face with my mother's genitalia.'
- 'In the last decade, I had become my mother's official enema-giver.'
- 'A surge of lust shot through me as I held it (her dead mother's sagging breast), as pure as an infant's appetite.'
Times of London:
When Helen kills her mother (and describing it as a mercy killing would be pushing it), the event triggers not so much remorse as a bout of self-obsessed introspection. During these passages of bog-standard Bildungs-roman it's as though she's decamped into another novel, and you have to give thanks for her foresight in putting Mom (who was mad, in case you haven't guessed) in the freezer. Even the specifics of her mother's insanity are unoriginal, expressed in terms of a femininity - a feminine mystique, one might say - too fragile to engage with the real world.
Los Angeles Times:
These actions are mind-numbingly arbitrary, although that may be Sebold's point: Does anyone really know why they do anything? And it may be that her refusal to give us the details we need to better understand Helen's actions is part of her method.
San Francisco Chronicle:
You realize that rather than having slipped as an observer down a rabbit hole into a world of crazies, perhaps Sebold has just turned things upside down so that the rabbit hole leads right back to the reality we're already living in. 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.
Christian Science Monitor:
Sebold does wring a certain amount of suspense out of whether Helen will succeed in getting away with murder, but since she hasn't managed to make a reader give a hoot about Helen or Clair, it's a bit of a Pyrrhic victory.