’Almost Moon’ almost meets high expectations

It’s not a giveaway to say that the main character in The Almost Moon kills her mother. After all, Alice Sebold (author of #1 bestseller The Lovely Bones) informs her readers of this pertinent fact in the first sentence of the novel. It serves as a lead-in to the story of a mother-daughter relationship, which, apart from its grisly end, would have been the stuff of a fairly typical memoir-esque novel. Over the course of the book, the protagonist, Helen, indulges in murder, sex with a man almost 20 years her junior and extended ruminations on her past. She contemplates suicide toward the end and, frankly, I would not have missed her.

Despite the overt sensationalism of its beginning, the book has some good points. Its prose is pristine and evocative. Helen’s occasional wry, desperate humor touches a certain chord, and sometimes amused me. The plot felt like a framework on which the reminiscences rested rather than ints own motus, as though Sebold felt self-conscious telling only the story of the narrator’s life and had to wind it over the skeleton of a murder mystery; nonetheless, it kept me sitting upright, if not on the edge of my seat.

The book begins, as I’ve said, with the tale of her mother’s murder, protracted and told in loving detail. Perhaps a bit too much time, for the comfort of my own stomach, was spent detailing the mother’s failed bowels. Then again, the disgust and despair do offer an immediate reason for the murder, rather than the nebulous pent-up rage that we later learn the protagonist feels at her mentally ill, perpetually agoraphobic mother. Certain notes of humor inject themselves into the narration, as when Helen speaks about her mother’s tacit competition with the next-door neighbor, who is 96 years old. “In my mother’s and Mrs. Leverton’s life, it came down to who would be the oldest when she died. I felt like saying, Congratulations, Mrs. Leverton, you’ve won!”

It grows evident that Helen feels very alone, tied more to her mother than to anyone else in her life. She spends her time caring for the woman, alone after her father’s suicide, nursing her resentment. She has been divorced from her husband for 20 years, seemingly out of her own insecurity. If you would really enjoy knowing all the details of the narrator’s psyche, I recommend the book. You may like it.

I found the narrator morally abhorrent, and not merely because she murdered her mother. After all, the mother is not exactly the most sympathetic character; she is portrayed as querulous, in the throes of dementia, and even in her younger portrayals she is troubled and so inwardly turned as to be ineffectual and unable to care for others. However, I had a problem with the implication that her situation as a cold, withholding person was the fault of her family dynamic as a child. Yes, her father appeared depressed and committed suicide. Yes, her mother was agoraphobic and often cruelly critical. The other decisions Helen makes, however, are hers alone.

Sebold doesn’t seem to be pushing her protagonist as a moral bastion and, of course, it isn’t a morality tale. Rather, it’s an exploration of the intricacy of a particular family’s relationship through time and the ways disappointment can weigh on succeeding generations.

To speak of minutia, Helen does have a rather intriguing profession. She works as a nude model, certainly a symbolic job (stripping naked physically rather than emotionally). She comes across as stark and distant, almost like her mother, until the end of the book. At that point, we are offered a touching scene between herself and her daughter, a delicate balance of all the book’s best offerings: a generous dose of dry humor and poignancy that actually rings true.

I wish there had been more scenes of this kind (another like it involves Helen and her husband before their marriage, when they are planning out their first child’s room). The moments of happiness, with the emotional distance Helen keeps from everyone a mere undercurrent, are far more effective than the melodrama of the hours after her mother’s murder.

The Almost Moon impressed me most when it wasn’t trying to impress, in the moments of realistic observation and truthfulness set down on the page. At the times when it was overdramatic or sad, it grew trite, the emotions flattened out, and I lost interest. Sebold seemed to focus on physical rather than emotional dynamics at such times, perhaps an illustration of the protagonist’s distancing mechanisms – or perhaps the writer’s stopgap solution. In any case, if you are a fan of Sebold, I would suggest this book. But it isn’t for everyone.

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