Alice Sebold: The Almost Moon

by Rachel Baker on September 10, 2008

Have you ever read a book so disturbing you couldn’t wait for it to end, but you also didn’t want to stop reading it?  This past weekend, I had this very experience.  I picked up The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold on Friday afternoon, and finished it Sunday morning.  I put it down only long enough to eat and sleep.

The Almost Moon could be classified as a haunting psychological study of the affects a mentally ill parent has on his or her children.  As a parent, you want to have positive affects, but what if all you have is a negative affect? Sebold explores this question in The Almost Moon.

The first line of the book is:

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

Wait… what?!  How can that be?

Fourteen pages later, we  get:

“…I smashed these downy towels into my mother’s face.  Once begun I did not stop.  …The towels shifted, I saw her eyes. I held the towels for a long time, staring right at her, until I felt the tip of her nose snap and saw the muscles of her body go suddenly slack and knew that she had died.”


Needless to say, I was sucked in completely.  The first sentence hooked me. The first chapter grabbed me, handcuffed me to a radiator and proceeded to make me really uncomfortable.

This novel explores dependency and co-dependency in a family unit and the affects it has on the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the husband-wife relationship. The Almost Moon even goes as far as to show how this affects the family’s standing in the neighborhood, which is the turning event in how Helen (daughter) views Claire (mother).

“My father had exited stage right, and in I had walked, seeing it not as my duty but as perhaps the greatest gift I might give him posthumously, to take forever the burden of my mother.”

Claire is mentally ill and one can’t help but wonder as the story continues through the trips through past and present if everyone in the initial family unit is insane.  I question Helen’s mental stability, but am not really sure she was completely insane at all until the very end, when she’d truly realized what she’d done.

The Almost Moon also seems to be an exploration into the Nature vs Nurture concept.  Helen’s daughters appear to be fairly normal. I believe there is a comparison being made between the fact that Helen’s parents stayed together through the very end resulting in her father’s suicide vs Helen’s own divorce and the way her children view her role in their grandmother’s life. Helen is one of the most creepy characters I’ve ever come across on a pure psychological level, and I don’t think her creepiness is through any fault of her own.

This novel is rich in recurring symbols.  The symbolism is hard to miss.  Here are two examples I would like to view as teasers and not spoilers.

A great deal of attention is paid to the body, in a very sterile way. Both mother and daughter are models – mom (Claire) did lingerie and daughter (Helen) does nude modeling for the local college art classes.  Throughout the book, Helen revisits the past while she’s sitting nude for an art class.  Claire is happiest when she is reminiscent about the past through the many photographs displayed throughout the house.  Helen notes:

“As my mother drifted into the past, where she was happiest, I appointed myself the past’s faithful guardian.”

I was fascinated by the rose-petal pink slip.  For Claire, the photographs of the rose petal pink slip were a symbol of a time when she loved who she was.  For Helen, I think the same garment was a reflection of a time she held on to, because she hadn’t experienced it.

According to the book jacket, Newsweek said ‘practically every paragraph is a talking point.’  This is one of the truest statements about a book I’ve ever read!  Though it was poignantly disturbing, The Almost Moon was phenomenally written, and incredibly insightful into human emotions many of us never have to deal with.

  • To join in discussion about this book (or others), please visit the old musty books book club

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