Customer Reviews: The Almost Moon
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on December 18, 2007
It is fine to not like a book and to say so, but the reasons many of these negative reviews are giving seem very confused. What I believe has happened here is that Alice Sebold is a very dark writer who takes on subject matters that most authors don't and somehow she fell into great success with the Lovely Bones, which is wonderful. The problem is Alice Sebold isn't a typical best-selling author and by that I mean she isn't a sell out. She doesn't write books to please the masses and that is very clear from this second novel.

The Almost Moon is not a book that's going to appeal to a mass audience, mostly because mass audiences want an "enjoyable" book that has a clear-cut ending and may have dark moments but leaves you with a sense of hope. The Almost Moon is none of these things. But does that make it a bad book? I'd like to argue no.

This book is compelling and strange and never lets you off the hook for a second. It challenges your thinking, your own relationships, and that thin line between normal behavior and the grotesque. This may not be "enjoyable" but it is powerful and worthy of anyone's time. I like dark books that go against the grain. The majority of books being written today are sloppy, commercial crap and this is not.

As for those who hated the ending I challenge you to re-think the book. The point is not to have a wrapped up story. The point is to explore the immediate aftermath (24 hours) of a horrible event in someone's life. It ends right where it should. This isn't some murder mystery crime novel that's going to tie everything into a little package like an episode of Law and Order. It's more complex than that.

I challenge people to take on this book and to see it for it is.
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on October 15, 2007
On September 30, 2007, I posted an admiring review about Alice Sebold's first novel, "The Lovely Bones." That book was a literary sensation in 2002 and sold more than ten million copies worldwide.

Sebold was gracious about her success, but seemed a little baffled that millions would interpret it as a sentimental message of hope - because she herself, despite overcoming great personal adversity - isn't a born optimist. In "The Lovely Bones," she parsed violence without being graphic and explored relationships with a delicate hand. Her detached and deconstructive writing style - then and now - reminds me of the great Joan Didion.

Unfortunately, the success of "The Lovely Bones" works against Sebold in "The Almost Moon." I believe it will anger readers who made her first novel a blockbuster. The title refers to someone who's not all there - a celestial body in periods of darkness - hiding bits of itself to the naked eye. It's a story about things we hate about ourselves, things we go to great lengths to hide to meet society's demand to be "normal."

While "The Almost Moon" is a superbly crafted tale of madness, it's also a house of horrors better suited for readers used to the savage imagery of Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and David Lynch. It's as surreal and unpleasantly graphic as one of Francisco Goya's Black Paintings, a monster eating one's child. Unlike "The Lovely Bones" - which unfolded dreamy observations with subtlety - "The Almost Moon" arrives like a sledgehammer. It feels deliberate and unflinching, as if Sebold had no interest repeating the atmosphere that made her first novel a critical and commercial success.

Helen Knightly is an artist's model near 50. She murders her mother Clair - who has dementia - after Clair loses control of her bowels. (Sebold owns the template for writing dazzling openings too compelling to ignore, pulling you into a riptide that won't let go.)

But "The Almost Moon" quickly takes a sharp turn into the bizarre - and becomes an incessantly bleak novel of mental illness that leaves nothing to the imagination - sometimes in ways more disagreeable than shocking. However true it reflects the things we think about, it's one of the darkest works of 2007. Any non-crime novel that explores, for example, the swirling blood patterns left behind on a staircase wall from a man who falls after shooting himself - isn't aiming to be a breezy read during the holiday season.

During the next 24 hours, Helen Knightly feels liberated and caged. She succumbs to sexual and subjectively deviant impulses others might try to suppress. But she still has the presence of mind to annotate her behavior in ways which show she's no dummy. She washes and drags her mother's body to the basement. She has sex with the 30-ish son of her best friend, who's all sensuality and no substance. She thinks about Clair, her sarcastic, reclusive, once beautiful and now dead mother.

Helen recalls her dead father (loving and gentle but also mentally ill, who liked to carve wood into whimsical shapes). She thinks about her ex-husband Jake (supportive present-day accomplice), her two daughters (apparently normal), her art teacher pal (for whom she poses in classes as a model) and her neighbors (generically nosy and friendly). She thinks about her best friend Natalie (unhappy but in love with a construction worker) and Natalie's son Hamish, Helen's aforementioned one-night paramour.

Is Helen herself insane? Does she get away with murder? Without giving away the ending, we sense her fate can't be as bittersweet as Susie Salmon's in "The Lovely Bones." Life's cumulative disappointments and low self esteem prevents Helen from planning too far ahead or from expecting too much from the world. She's forever trapped in the muck of low expectations.

In sum, Alice Sebold remains a dazzling writer. She doesn't preach, hates sentimentalism and keeps her prose deceptively simple. She cares more about relationships - and the events which pull them in every direction - than about churning out a potboiler every two years. She's become a thinking person's horror writer, exploring the wreckage of dysfunctional people after hooking you with a stunning premise.

But by sticking to her guns, exploring the gory truths of mental illness, adding layers of misery to ensure Helen's story feels plausible - Sebold challenges the paying reader to enter a hell from which there may be no return.

Even if "The Almost Moon" is an accurate depiction of mental illness, I wonder if it really breaks new ground in a work of modern fiction. Ironically, the same uncompromising approach we admire about Sebold - makes her second novel too harrowing to recommend to everyone.
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VINE VOICEon January 14, 2008
Mental illness, and other serious disabilities, almost always have a profound effect upon families and the individuals that make up those families. The Almost Moon tells a story about one such individual, Helen Knightley, whose mother has suffered from severe agoraphobia all her life and as the novel commences is sliding rapidly into senile dementia. When Helen impulsively smothers her mother, who has just soiled herself and continues to snipe at her daughter while she attempts to clean her up, the severe repression that has always crippled Helen is violently ripped away. In the course of 24 harrowing hours, the truths of Helen's life and identity rush to the surface with almost unbearable clarity.

Sebold wrote The Almost Moon using a combination of stream of consciousness and memory. Readers who are not comfortable with novels based upon irrationality, and inner rather than overt forms of action, will probably dislike this novel. But mental illness is illogical. Watching Helen come to terms with what she has done, and why she has done it, is a slow, unpleasant process. But unlike those who found the ending of this book inconclusive, I found it to be clear and, well, logical. I think I know very well what is about to happen. I won't say more to avoid spoilers.

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, are other titles that deal with mental illness in a way that seems more palatable to many readers. But, though I find myself in the minority here on Amazon, I enjoyed The Almost Moon as well, dark as it is. Life is not always sunny and warm.
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on October 16, 2007
Alice Sebold is dark. Her first wildly bestselling novel dealt with the murder of a child. This novel deals with matricide. It's laid out plainly in the opening line, "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." Me, personally, I've never thought about murdering my mother. And yet, I totally understood how this previously law-abiding citizen wound up in the situation she was in. Sebold had me with her every step of the way.

The entire novel actually takes place in just about 24 hours. Forty-nine-year-old Helen is paying a visit to her difficult and declining 88-year-old mother Claire. In a moment of weakness (Or is it mercy?) Helen snaps. She suffocates her mother. This is horrible, but I believe most readers will understand why it happened. Helen had been a virtual slave to her mother for years. Their love/hate relationship is as complex as they come. Although the events of the novel unfold in the course of a day, through flashbacks and memories we really get the story of Helen's relationship with both of her parents as well as her ex-husband, friends, and now adult daughters. Helen is a product of her upbringing. She's become what she had to become. So, when she snaps and kills her mother, I understood it.

But from that one pivotal event, she does everything wrong. She compounds her mistake in truly horrible ways. It is the ultimate downward spiral, and watching it is like watching a train wreck--you can't look away. And I couldn't stop turning pages fast enough. You know it will end badly as she pulls others into her nightmare, but you just have to see how it ends. Now I know, and I find it a bit haunting.

This is that rare and most wonderful of things, a literary page-turner. The writing is fantastic and the plot compulsive. I saw Sebold speak to a room full of booksellers in June. She said, "This is what you're all wanting to know: Does the follow-up to The Lovely Bones suck?" Let me tell you, it does not suck. Sebold's sophomore effort is a triumph. Read it.
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on December 30, 2008
I actually found this quite a gripping book, which after reading the reviews on here, I wasn't expecting.

The story is told in the first person, by 50 year old Helen who is worn down and tired from looking after her elderly mother. I'm not giving anything away by saying that she kills her mother and then over the course of the book we learn more about Helen, her parents and childhood, and her life now. I've not had to deal with any of the issues in the book myself, but I could empathise with the main character, her feelings seemed understandable and even normal in a depressed kind of way. I could imagine the awfulness of looking after someone with dementia. She still had humour...albeit very black - but it appealed to me.

I found myself liking the child Helen more than the adult Helen but this was probably intentional on Sebolds part, and made understanding the adult she became a little easier. As her life opens up to the reader we discover more about her parents and her neighbours and their impact on her. In parts I was reminded of 'To Kill A Mockingbird', the ignorance and the insight of various characters.

I did find myself understanding Helen more as the book went along...but not always. She liked one of her daughters more than the other which I found hard to relate to, and she had an obsession with dismemberment which was a bit disturbing. Bearing in mind that I haven't experienced mental illness, I did accept the wanderings of her mind to be pretty realistic.
Although it's a work of fiction, I really felt it illustrates how much parents, upbringing and experiences influence a child and who they grow up to be.
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on November 26, 2007
I don't agree that the subject matter was gross and unseemly. I actually found it quite relevant with so many middle-aged people today struggling to care for their elderly and sometimes very difficult parents. And I still think this is some of the best writing (who could ever get bored?) that I've read in a long time. What really set me off, however, was the ending. I frequently find that even the best writers cannot write a satisfactory ending. This one was the worst ever! No ending really. No resolution whatsoever. We are to assume she gets caught, I guess. The question of the morality of what she has done is left hanging. Gosh, I hated it, just hated it. How could someone think up such a compelling story and leave it hanging. Don't buy this book if you hate "non-endings."
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on April 7, 2011
I can understand why people who loved a best selling book like "The Lovely Bones" might not care for this book. What made "The Lovely Bones" work is that despite the gruesome crime, and the loss the characters felt, the little girl never left us and from our point of view, she was in a better place. But "The Lovely Bones" was clearly fiction. The dark subject matter was treated delicately. This is not so in "The Almost Moon." The subject matter is what it is, and for those who have been placed in a position of caring for (or dealing with) someone with a mental illness (particularly one who vacillates between being both helpless and controlling as Helen's mother did) the plot rings true and comes off more as an autobiography. Ms. Sebold explores the disturbing fact that mental illness can have long lasting effects that reach far and wide and are often the impetus for emotional problems in others, particularly spouses and children. In that regard the novel reminds me of Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects." The conflicting emotions of love and hate, responsibility and contempt, that Helen feels gave me the impression that Helen really is Alice and that the first person account is more than just a storytelling device. (I haven't read her memoir so perhaps that's already a known fact.) On page ninety-six Helen makes the statement, "Natalie's mom drank booze. That was enviable to me. The ease of being able to locate it in a bottle was like a dream." If Ms Sebold is not writing from experience then she did a hell of a job researching the subject matter. I think the writing here is far superior to "The Lovely Bones." Although I did find some of it disturbing, I also found it fascinating. If "Lucky" is so much better than this book as some have stated, then I'm looking forward to reading it as well.
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on October 18, 2007
No matter how one tries to twist and explain, there is nothing about Helen, her history or her actions over the 24 hours of this book that create any sense of understanding or compassion. "The Almost Moon" may work well for some readers but with less absurdity, could have been a powerful book for many more. A disappointing second novel.
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on December 25, 2007
Almost Moon is clumsy and overworked, as if the writer just couldn't get it all together. Unlike her last two books, this novel lacks the restraint found in Lovely Bones; it is lewd and raw; nearly unreadable and macabre.

In order to recapture my interest, her next work will need to fill soul-less vacuum left by the darkness of this moon with the kind of redemption she so artfully captures in Lovely Bones.
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VINE VOICEon December 30, 2007
I am a big fan of Alice Sebold's other two books, "The Lovely Bones" and "Lucky," which are brilliant. I wish I could say the same for "The Almost Moon," but I can't. This is a TERRIBLE novel! It was literally painful to read. The premise of the book is interesting enough: Helen, a middle-aged woman, kills her elderly mother, Clair, when she grows sick of caring for her. Clair has tormented Helen and slowly sucked the life out of her every day of her entire life, and Helen finally has enough and smothers Clair with a towel. The book follows Helen's attempts to cover up the crime and flashes back to key moments from her childhood, when she was living under the care of two parents who were each abusive in their own way.

I expected to love this book, but I despised it. I could tell from the second page that it was going to suck, but I forced myself to plow through it in the hopes that a miracle would occur and I would find something redeeming within the book's pages. Needless to say, that didn't happen. I hated Helen's character, and it wasn't just because she killed her own mother. The things she did with Clair's corpse were absolutely ridiculous and disgusting, and her behavior directly following the murder was also completely unbelievable. This entire book is just way too bizarre and weird for my taste, and I was very put off by the whole thing. Do not even bother with it.
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