SAN FRANCISCO — For all of her startling lyricism and her capacity to defy genre classifications, Alice Sebold finds herself at a prosaic book-business crossroads: The "next book" after the "big book" — the dreaded "sophomore novel."

SAN FRANCISCO — For all of her startling lyricism and her capacity to defy genre classifications, Alice Sebold finds herself at a prosaic book-business crossroads: The "next book" after the "big book" — the dreaded "sophomore novel."

Sebold, author of the 2002 blockbuster "The Lovely Bones," would just as soon build a bridge over this customary moment and step to the next.

"Like, wouldn't it be best if there could just be the third book?" she said over coffee in a San Francisco restaurant.

She and her husband, novelist Glen David Gold, now call the city home after eight years in Long Beach and three in Ojai.

Five years, multiple drafts and two new cities later, Sebold's new book, "The Almost Moon," arrives this week: It's the tale of a decades-long emotional dance between a mother and daughter, Clair and Helen Knightly, taking place in the narrow space between love and hate and madness.

It's also the long-anticipated follow-up to her first novel, which sat on The New York Times best- seller list, both hardcover and paper, for 78 weeks.

"The Lovely Bones " told the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who was raped and murdered, but who also served as her own story's narrator. From the perch of the afterlife, she takes measure of what loss means on either side of the divide.

What made its success remarkable (read: newsworthy) was that Sebold, then 39, came out of nowhere: a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, MFA graduate program whose book was sold on the strength of its early pages.

While Sebold had a critically acclaimed memoir under her belt, 1999's "Lucky," about her rape as an 18-year-old, as a fiction writer she was relatively unknown.

The novel quickly emerged as a ubiquitous read for book groups, train commutes and waiting rooms across the country — and just as quickly became an easy target for the literati. But no matter: The book has more than 5 million copies in print and a film adaptation to be directed by Peter Jackson going into production in a few weeks. All of which is why, with "The Almost Moon," Sebold has girded herself for come what may.

Plans are big — national television and major print advertising, large-venue appearances across the country and a jaunt overseas. But early word isn't across-the-board glowing: A long with positive or mixed reviews, a few sharply barbed pans have hurtled in from high places. It's been called "unremittingly bleak," "grim and grimmer," "dark." While Library Journal calls it a "daring, devastating novel," Publishers Weekly has deemed it "disappointing," a "sophomore effort not in line with her talent."

Sebold understands how the scales can tip.

"I know that there are going to be people who are going to be put off by this book just because the last book did so well," she said, "and people are going to be put off from it because they liked the other book. These are the things that are outside of our — one's — control."

Sebold knows her way around imagination's dark corridors. "The Almost Moon" travels down emotionally treacherous and murky passageways; its narrative, like "Lovely Bones," is set in motion by a violent act. The book's emotionally burdened middle-age protagonist, Helen, has long struggled to see herself and to be seen. She works as an artist's model, sitting nude for college students who sketch her into being.

Helen moves through life like a somnambulist, still puzzling over her failed marriage, fetching and caring for others, eclipsed by the variable needs of her mercurial mother, until she is pushed over the edge and does the unthinkable — kills her aged, mentally unstable mother.

This revelation will ruin nothing: The shocking action occurs on the very first page, in the first very first sentence: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it."

The arc of the story — which takes place over 24 hours — unfolds in a quick-paced, stream-of-consciousness series of flashbacks, and endeavors to piece together how she got to this tragic place.

It's disturbing and unrelenting, Sebold knows, and some will take to it and others won't: "But for me, it's like when you meet somebody who has done something intense, but you don't know anything else about them. You want to know, 'What's the deal with that person?' So that's the desire on my part to have a little bit of 'that deal.' "

It is that desire, that keenness, says Michael Pietsch, executive vice president and publisher of Little Brown, that has garnered Sebold her readers.

"Her prose is often stunning, both because of the beauty of the language and because she is fiercely brave. She'll go into the darkest places and come out with the light."

Like 'Lovely Bones," "The Almost Moon" defies easy categorization. Both move as swiftly as thrillers, probe deeply as family drama and are told in dreamlike prose. But it took a while for Sebold to to find her writing rhythms again.

"Susie, the main character (of "Lovely Bones") is a very strong force. So I went on the road to help Susie," Sebold said. "But at a certain point, it was like: 'Oh, you're fine on your own. I'm exhausted. You're doing beautifully! I'm just going to get out of here.' So there was this sense that she was much stronger than I was."

It took about two full years for Susie to make room for Helen (and add to that the 31/2 years it took Sebold to put "The Almost Moon" together end-to-end).

"I feel that I was lucky I had the ideas for this book, kind of the central obsessions, before I went on the road, before 'Bones' was published, before any of that hit," she said. "I had notes in my head. I didn't have my character and I didn't have my story, but I had my obsessions."

After "Bones," "I quickly began to understand that one of the most important things about being a writer is being able to observe. And if you're being observed, you can't observe. So my experience of touring began to feel toxic for me as a writer. That's part of the reason I moved to Ojai, because I really wanted to mimic the bird in the tree. Just disappear and observe again."

She put herself on an immersion schedule for six- to eight-week intervals, rising in the dark, at three or four in the morning, passing her husband in the hallway on his way to bed.

"The nice thing about Ojai was that it was isolated. But by the time we left it, we were a little crazy. It had really begun to turn in on itself," she admitted.

But that's what it took, draft after draft, seeing her way to Helen's voice.

"Only after working on the book from other perspectives, telling the story from various points of view — it's about finding the voice that can bear the weight of the whole story," Sebold said.

"And so at a certain point what was the most challenging voice? What was the most direct voice — and it's the one who the story is about — the woman who kills her mother. 'So, do it, Sebold,' " she said. "You have to almost lead yourself into a place by pretending that you're never going there."

Midway through "The Almost Moon," Helen recalls a conversation she had with her father, his attempt to explain not just her mother's illness, but one of life's most bittersweet truisms.

"So much in life is about almosts, not quites."

Like the moon? the daughter asks.

"The moon is whole all the time," he explains, "but we can't always see it."

It's those tough, tight spaces that people have backed themselves into, the bad luck or tragedy that befalls us, the compromises , the glass half-full, that we have to settle for, that Sebold has become the troubadour of.

Because of her deed, and the dark procession of events that follow, Helen is not as instantly winning as Susie. Sebold knows that. Her hope is that it will make her not less sympathetic, but more human:

"What I'm fascinated about is how people are not open to the fact that we are flawed human beings, and that we can be flawed and still human," Sebold said. "And that they are probably sitting there with their flaws, too, and pretending that they have none — or feel like they have to pretend that they have none."

Love Helen or hate her, Sebold said she's he's a piece of work. But most interesting people are."