Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold




(Mildly Recommended)




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Alice Sebold followed her well-written and haunting debut novel, The Lovely Bones, with a disturbing novel titled, The Almost Moon, about a woman who kills her 88 year old senile mother on an ordinary day. What could have been an exploration into madness and how it produces behavior turned into an almost comedic romp into a murder, a sloppy cover-up and the ways in which individuals can be unlovable. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 15-18:

My clues to my mother's life before me were not many. It took me a while to notice that almost all of them —the Steuben glass paperweights, the sterling silver picture frames, the Tiffany rattles that were sent a dozen strong before she mis­carried her first, then second, child—were chipped or dented, cracked or blackened in various ways. Almost all of them had been or would be thrown either at a wall or at my father, who ducked with a reflexive agility that reminded me of Gene Kelly tripping up and down the sodden curbs in Singin' in the Rain. My father's grace had developed in proportion to my mother's violence, and I knew that in absorbing it and deflecting it in the way he did, he also saved her from seeing herself as she had be­come. Instead she saw the same reflections of herself that I pored over when I snuck downstairs after dark. Her precious still pho­tography.

When my father met her, my mother was fresh from Knoxville, Tennessee, and made her living as a showroom model of un­derwear and support garments. She preferred to say, "I mod­eled slips." And these were the photos that we had so many of. Framed black and whites of my mother in better times, wearing black slips or white slips. "That one was eggshell," she might say from the corner of the living room, not having said anything to anyone all afternoon. I knew she was referring to a specific slip in a specific picture, and sensing this, I would choose the white slip I thought could be eggshell. If I got it wrong, the moment would burst — as fragile as a blow bubble glistening in the yard— and she would slump back into the chair. But if I chose right, and I would come to memorize them over time— there was the bone, the ecru, the nude, and my favorite, the rose-petal pink—I would bring the framed photograph to her. Hanging on to the thin cord of her smile, I pulled myself into the past with her, making my­self small and still on the ottoman until she told me the story of the photography session or the man involved or the gifts that she had received as partial payment.

The rose-petal pink was my father.

"He was not even the photographer," she would say. "He was a junior water inspector in a borrowed suit with a pocket square, but I didn't know that then."

These were the years of my earliest childhood, when my mother was still powerful, before she collected what she consid­ered the unforgivable flaws of age. Two years short of her fiftieth birthday, she began covering all her mirrors with heavy cloths, and when, as a teenager, I suggested we remove the mirrors com­pletely, she objected. They remained there as she grew infirm. Her shadowy, silent indictments.

But in the photos of the rose-petal-pink slip, she was still wor­thy of her own love, and it was this love for herself that I tried to take warmth from. What I knew, I think, without wanting to admit it, was that the photos were like the historical documents of our town. They proved that long ago, there had been a more hopeful time. Her smile was easy then, not forced, and the fear that could turn to bitterness had not tainted her eyes.

"He was the photographer's friend," she said. "He was having a big day in the city, and the suit was part of his friend's lie."

I knew not to ask, "What lie, Mom?" Because that took her to a bad place where her marriage was just the long, arduous play­ing out of an afternoon con between schoolboy friends. Instead I asked, "Who was the shoot for?"

"The original John Wanamaker's," she said. Her face glowed like an old-fashioned streetlamp lit from the inside. Everything else in the room disappeared as if into a dark fog. I did not real­ize then that there was no place in these memories for the com­pany of a child.

As my mother drifted into the past, where she was happiest, I appointed myself the past's faithful guardian. If her feet looked cold, I covered them. If the light left the room too dark, I qui­etly crept over and turned on a bookshelf lamp that would cast only a small circle of light—not too big—just enough to keep her voice from becoming a scary shapeless echo in the dark. Outside, in the street in front of our house, the workmen who had been hired to install the stained-glass windows in the new Greek Orthodox church—green because for some reason this color of glass was cheaper than most —might walk by and make a noise too loud to ignore. When this happened, I would meet the drowsy blank stare that came over my mother with ushering words meant to slip her back to the dream-past.

"Five girls showed up, not eight," I'd say.

Or "His last name, Knightly, was irresistible."

When I look back, I think how silly I must have sounded, par­roting the phrases of my mother's lovesick girlhood, but what s most precious about our house back then was that no matter how wrongheaded everything might be, inside it, we could distill ourselves to being a normal man, woman, and child. No one had to see my father put on an apron and do overtime work after he got home, or watch me cajole my mother, trying to get her to eat.

"I didn't know he wasn't in the fashion industry until after he'd kissed me," she'd say.

"But what about the kiss?"

It was always here that she teetered. The kiss and the weeks im­mediately following it must have been wonderful, but she could not forgive my father once he'd brought her to Phoenixville.

"New York City," she'd say, looking down dejectedly between her splayed feet on the floor. "I never even got there."

It was my mother's disappointments that were enumerated in our household and that I saw before me every day as if they were posted on our fridge— a static list that my presence could not assuage.

The exploration of mother-daughter relationships consumes many pages of novels, and The Almost Moon makes a contribution to that effort. For some readers, the way Sebold presents that relationship in this book will make reading The Almost Moon worthwhile. The redeeming quality in this book, for me, was the ability of Sebold to present mental illness and irrationality in a way that readers who have not come close to this experience may appreciate the ways in which illness can spread. For most readers, the unattractive characters and plot will be too much of a diversion to provide any reading pleasure or insight.


Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2008 issue of Executive Times


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