Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is the story of a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches from her personal Heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives while she comes to terms with her own death. The novel received much critical praise and became an instant bestseller.
The story begins in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1973. Susie Salmon, 14, takes her usual shortcut home from her school through a cornfield. George Harvey, a 36-year-old neighbor who lives alone and builds doll houses for a living, persuades her to have a look at an underground den he has recently dug in the field. Once she enters, he rapes and murders her and dismembers her body, putting her remains in a safe that he dumps in a sinkhole. Susie’s spirit flees toward her personal heaven.
The Salmon family at first refuses to believe that Susie is dead, until Susie’s elbow is found by a neighbor’s dog. The police talk to Harvey, finding him strange but seeing no reason to suspect him. Susie’s father, Jack, begins to suspect Harvey, a sentiment his surviving daughter Lindsey comes to share. Jack takes an extended leave from work.
Later, Len Fenerman, the detective assigned to the case, tells the Salmons that the police have exhausted all leads and are dropping the investigation. That night in his study, Jack looks out the window and sees a flashlight in the cornfield. Thinking that it is Harvey returning to destroy more evidence, he runs out to confront him.
Trying to help her father prove his suspicions, Lindsey sneaks into Harvey’s house and finds a diagram of the underground den, but is forced to leave when Harvey returns unexpectedly. Later, evidence is discovered linking Harvey to Susie’s murder, as well as to those of several other girls.
Harvey returns to Norristown and explores his old neighborhood. He notices the school is being expanded into the cornfield where he murdered Susie. He drives by the sinkhole where Susie’s body rests and where Ruth Connors and Ray Singh are standing. Ruth, Susie’s former classmate who had felt Susie’s spirit rush past her immediately after she was murdered, senses the women Harvey has killed and is physically overcome. Susie, watching from heaven, is also overwhelmed with emotion and feels how she and Ruth transcend their present existence, and the two girls exchange positions: Susie, her spirit now in Ruth’s body, connects with Ray, who had a crush on Susie in school, and had made plans to go out with her a few days before the murder. Ray senses Susie’s presence, and is stunned by the fact that Susie is briefly back with him. The two make love as Susie has longed to do after witnessing her sister and Samuel. Afterwards, Susie returns to heaven.
Susie moves on into another, larger part of heaven, occasionally watching earthbound events. Lindsey and Samuel have a daughter together named Abigail Suzanne. While stalking a young woman in New Hampshire, Harvey is hit on the shoulder by an icicle and falls to his death down a snow-covered slope. At the end of the novel, Susie’s charm bracelet is found by a Norristown couple who don’t realize its significance, and Susie closes the story by wishing the reader “a long and happy life”.
Sebold’s novel was a surprise success when it was first published, mainly because it was written by a young author known only for one other book. In addition, the plot and narrative device are unusual and unconventional. It would have been considered a success by Little, Brown and Company had it sold 20,000 copies, but it ultimately sold over a million and remained on the New York Times hardback bestseller list for over a year.
Several faiths, believing that the soul continues to learn and mature after death, subscribe to the idea of the afterlife being organized into stages through which souls progress. Theosophical writers speculate on a “heaven world” where the newly dead orient themselves in an illusion of their perfect earthly desires before continuing on to the real Heaven as Susie does.
Sebold, who was raised Episcopalian, intended the heaven to be simplistic in design: “To me, the idea of heaven would give you certain pleasures, certain joys — but it’s very important to have an intellectual understanding of why you want those things. It’s also about discovery, and being able to come to the conclusions that elude you in life. So it’s from the most simplistic things — Susie wants a duplex — to larger things, like being able to understand why her mother was always slightly distant from her.”