On May 22 of this year, six weeks before the official publication date of Alice Sebold’s debut novel, which is narrated from Heaven by a fourteen-year-old girl who’s been raped and murdered, the novelist and former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen appeared on the Today show and declared that if people had one book to read during the summer, “it should be The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It’s destined to be a classic along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.” Viewers did what they were told and seemed to agree. Within days of Quindlen’s appearance, Sebold’s novel had reached the number-one position on Amazon.com, and her publisher, Little, Brown, decided to increase the size of the first printing from 35,000—already healthily optimistic for a “literary” first novel by an author whose only other book, a memoir of her rape, was a critical but not commercial success—to 50,000 copies; a week before the book’s official publication date, it was in its sixth printing, with nearly a quarter-million copies in print.
One week after publication, after Time magazine’s book critic Lev Grossman had declared the novel “the breakout fiction debut of the year,” the book was in its eighth printing, and there were 525,000 copies in print; two weeks and three additional printings later, the number was just under a million. By the end of September, it had become clear that the book was a phenomenon of perhaps unprecedented proportions: an eighteenth printing of a quarter-million copies, itself more than seven times the number originally planned for the first printing, put the number of copies in print at over two million. Such figures suggest that this may be more than merely the novel of the year: the Barnes & Noble fiction buyer has declared that “a book like this comes around once in a decade.” If not, indeed, longer. Little, Brown’s marketing director has commented that it’s “one of those books that rarely comes along, that reminds you why you chose this business.”
Reviews of The Lovely Bones have been almost uniformly good, ranging from very warm (Michiko Kakutani, in the Times, called it “deeply affecting”) to ecstatic (The New Yorker called it “a stunning achievement”), but the pattern of the book’s remarkable rise to preeminence among novels published during the past year, if not the past few years, suggests that it owes its success to word of mouth. Indeed, it must be remembered that its spectacular rise was achieved without the help of the now-defunct Oprah’s Book Club, which floated more than one small first novel onto the best-seller lists.
So there can be no question that the book’s popular appeal is deep and authentic. One measure of this is the fact that while the novel has, in its fifth month after publication, finally fallen to the second …