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Literature / The Lovely Bones

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"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.
I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

The Lovely Bones is a highly acclaimed, best-selling 2002 novel by Alice Sebold. Its heroine is Susie Salmon, who posthumously narrates the story of her family after her own rape and murder in December 1973. While she watches from her own private heaven, grief throws her family into disarray, and when the police investigation yields no clues, Susie's father and sister take matters into their own hands when clues lead them toward the actual murderer.

The book was adapted to film by Peter Jackson and released in 2009. It stars Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, and Susan Sarandon.

Tropes specifically about the book go here. For the film see The Lovely Bones.

The book provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: The main character is Susie Salmon, a young girl who was raped and murdered. Posthumously, she longs to have her life back. It isn't until she and her family accept things as they are that they can finally live in peace again. It really drives home the aesop that bad things will happen to you, but you must come to terms that it happened, and you must carry on as best you can, live in the moment, and not dwell on past grievances.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: Susie's heaven is described as being perfectly luxurious for a teenage girl, but there is a "big big heaven" that she makes it to by the end of the book, which is left in much vaguer detail.
  • Amateur Sleuth
    • After his daughter's murder, Jack tries to investigate Mr. Harvey with what little he has, but fails to confirm him as the killer. The stress eventually breaks him, and he assaults someone whom he mistook for Mr. Harvey
    • Hal tries his hand in at least asking questions to people who come into his shop.
    • Mr. Harvey even throws out some ideas to the police to avert suspicions. Even saying the blueprint of his underground room was an amateur sleuth hobby.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Ruth can come off as a little infatuated with Susie at times and expresses attraction towards women. However, she also kisses Ray and even allows Susie to possess her so she and Ray can have one night together. Neither Ruth nor the book one-hundred percent clarify her sexuality.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The story ends about 10-11 years after Susie's murder. By then Susie, her family, and her first love have accepted her death and moved on. Her family has also reconciled, deepened their bonds with each other and grown stronger as individuals. Minus some photographs, Susie's remaining possessions are donated, and her loved ones leave her in their memories, where Susie believes she was meant to be. Susie graduates to "wide wide Heaven", and only looks down at the Earth and her family sporadically. Lindsey and Samuel are married and have a child. Lindsey is a therapist, Ray is a doctor, and Ruth is trying to show everyone that the dead talk to the living. However, the safe containing Susie's body remains undiscovered in its sinkhole, and with the city considering filling it in, there is a chance it never will be. This means that Susie's family and friends may never be able to have a proper funeral or even know what befell her in that underground den. Though her murderer is killed after falling into a ravine (an outcome which might have been caused by Susie), preventing him from creating more victims, he is also never taken to court for his crimes and can no longer reveal where he buried his victims. Also, since it takes several weeks for his body to be found in the snowdrift and Susie ascends to "wide wide Heaven" a few pages later (thus ending the story), we never learn if his body was positively identified. Though the cold may help preserve the body, Susie's loved ones may never know that her murderer is dead, and thus believe that he is still out there creating new victims and escaping justice. In real life cases such as these, a fully wrapped-up conclusion doesn't always happen. Bitter memories and new sweet ones will remain combined in the fallout. At the very least, in Susie's reality, her family had found a way to live on and in the end should be together again in the afterlife.
  • Book Ends:
    • Susie on life. The book opens with her introduction telling us about when she died and then ends by wishing everyone a long and happy life.
    • The first and last time Mr. Harvey appears in the book, he's stalking and attempting to lure in a victim; Susie in the cornfield, and a young woman in New Hampshire. Susie is too polite to refuse him and is caught, while the young woman recognises Harvey as a creep and escapes from him, and he dies in a freak accident almost immediately afterwards.
  • Cassandra Truth: Hardly anyone ever believes Jack, thinking that the stress of losing his daughter is getting to him. Unfortunately, his mistaken assault on a neighbor ruins the last of his credibility. That said, Lindsey and Grandma Lynn aren't entirely opposed to Jack's belief that Mr Harvey killed Susie. Lindsey even breaks into his house to find evidence.
  • Chekhov's Gun
    • In the book it is the mention of the icicle. If Susie is narrating the story as we read it post-her going to the bigger heaven, then her mentioning of it as her perfect weapon is her foreshadowing that will be the cause of death for her murderer.
    • Subverted in the case of Susie's charm bracelet. It's brought up enough times to feel significant, and Mr. Harvey left a charm from it with the body of another victim...but the people who find it in the landfill have no way of knowing its significance or who it belonged to. It's just something that was thrown away.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Successful for Lindsey and Samuel. And possibly for Susie and Ray in that one would never live past childhood, but they did find a way.
  • Coming of Age Story: Not for Susie, who dies in the first chapter, but for her younger sister, whose development Susie watches. Over the course of the story, Lindsey endures the grief of losing her sister and deals with her fractured family in the fallout. She goes through a lot, but by the end she is married and has a child, and has healthily matured from her past trauma.
  • Cool Old Lady: Grandma Lynn massively helps the family out in the aftermath of Susie's death and does her best to support everyone, especially Lindsey.
  • Dead Guy Junior: A partial example. Lindsey's daughter is named Abigail Suzanne.
  • Dead Person Conversation:
    • Towards the end of the book, Susie and Ruth "swap places" so that Ruth can be assured that there is an afterlife and Susie and Ray can finally spend just one night together.
    • Also with Buckley, who claims to be able to see Susie when he's younger. Susie herself isn't entirely sure if he does, or if he is just making it up to comfort himself.
  • Dead to Begin With: The story is partly set in and fully told from Susie's afterlife.
  • Death by Irony: The eventual fate of Susie's killer? Killed by an icicle that drops on him. There's an incident earlier in the book where Susie refers to the "perfect murder" game played in heaven. The weapon she always picks? An icicle, because it melts away. Also consider that Susie might be narrating from the future to make that line a foreshadowing or later she mentions the ability to affect some things on Earth, (like Buckley's garden).
  • The Determinator: Jack refuses to stop at anything to find out who killed his daughter, no matter how much the stress takes a toll out on him. Unfortunately, this results in a breakdown from the stress in which he unknowingly assaults a neighbor.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Notwithstanding the possibility that he likely would have been sighted at some point while building his "clubhouse" (or, after the murder, while destroying it), Mr. Harvey engages in lots of very suspicious behavior that should have at the very least led the police to consider him as a suspect earlier in the investigation than they do. Most of the neighbors regard him as odd but not that he could possibly be a murderer.
  • Died Happily Ever After: When Susie moves out of the in-between and into heaven where she spends most of the time with her grandfather.
  • Disney Villain Death: Mr. Harvey dies by falling off a cliff when an icicle hits him.
  • Disposing of a Body: Mr. Harvey gets rid of Susie's dismembered body by putting it in a safe and dropping it in the local sinkhole. Within Suzie's narration we learn Harvey had a habit of doing this with his various victims as well as shedding evidence of his mementos.
  • Distant Finale: In the novel; The final scene is of Susie's charm bracelet being found later by someone with absolutely no idea whose it is; he merely comments "The little girl this belonged to is all grown up now," to which Susie responds, "Not quite."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
    • A level of it appears as the book's concept of Heaven. Susie has to accept her death and move on to get into bigger Heaven, even though apparently that doesn't mean completely giving up on watching the living. But until the dead do that, they are just going to stay in the little bubble of simple desires.
    • It happens to Susie's family and friends on Earth as well, who suffer through years of grief and trauma over her disappearance before they finally start to heal by the end of the book.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Ray, as stated by Susie's narration in the novel, after the Time Skip.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: The Salmons' dog barks angrily at the sight of George Harvey's house.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Susie mentions that if she had been more attentive to her surroundings, she would have noticed Mr. Harvey watching her, implying that she could have avoided her death. Even if she had refused to go with him to his 'clubhouse', there's a chance she might have gotten away.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Averted. Alice Sebold, a survivor of rape, believes that murder is worse than rape and was quoted saying, "Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools." This is reflected in her writing.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Susie narrates the novel from Heaven, witnessing the events on earth and experiencing hopes and longings for the things she no longer can do.
  • Grief-Induced Split: Abigail abandons her family and moves to California in the wake of Susie's murder. In the novel, she is gone for eight years, whereas the time period is shorter in the film adaptation.
  • Helpless Observer Protagonist: Although Susie can interact with the living world a little bit, it's extremely limited and Susie is mostly relegated to watching as her family and friends each deal with their grief in their own way. The only time she actively influences anything is when Ruth, a young woman with extrasensory abilities, temporarily swaps bodies with her so Susie can experience life again for just a few hours.
  • The Hero Dies: Susie herself at the beginning.
  • Her Heart Will Go On: Ray still carries a torch for Susie years after her death, but by the end of the story is making his way to moving on, possibly with Ruth.
  • Housewife: Susie's mother, Abigail, is a reluctant one. She seems to have planned to go back to work once Susie and Lindsey were old enough to take care of themselves, but then Buckley was born.
  • Idiot Ball: Susie herself post death realizes she dropped the ball when it came to going along with Mr. Harvey, but Franny seems to know that happens a lot with the dead.
    • That said, the way Susie is lured to her death is realistic and could have happened to anyone regardless of smarts. Especially given this is set in the 70's, before "stranger danger" was a real concept. A skeevy adult can get really far by exploiting a child's innate trust in adults and their fear of being impolite. Hell, the latter is an effective manipulating tool even with adults.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: As Susie died at 14, so her mind remains in that age throughout her narration.
  • I See Dead People: Ruth after Susie touches her shoulder on her way to heaven. She also has a vision of the dead victims and animals following Mr. Harvey's car, and spies one during her time in New York.
  • Karmic Death: Literally. After attempting and failing to ensnare another victim in an icy parking lot, Mr. Harvey is struck by a falling icicle and slips on the ice, plunging off a cliff to his death.
  • Late for School: Susie runs late to school, and has to sneak in through the auditorium. This allows her the chance to spend time with Ray and get a chance to understand Ruth a little better.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: To the book as a whole, sex happens in some strange choices. Susie's rape is in a dug out room under a cornfield (Clarissa and Brian were going to do it just in the cornfield), the first Lindsey/Samuel is under a boat at Summercamp and the second is in a broken down house in the middle of the woods they later buy. Abigail/Len is inside a interstructure room at the mall. Ray/Susie in Ruth's body at least use a bed, but it's also Hal's bed that they kinda broke into his shop to get to.
  • Married to the Job: Len Fenerman has become this as he has problems separating his job from his personal life, as he's also trying to "solve" the mystery of his wife's suicide alongside the missing kids.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Buckley says things that make it seem like he knows more about the afterlife, but Susie isn't sure if this is an actual clairvoyance or just his imagination.
  • Moving Beyond Bereavement: A major part of the story is devoted to Susie's family struggling with the loss of their daughter in the course of the following years (and not just a loss: she is murdered by the neighbourhood serial killer, and her body, apart from a few "fragments", is never found). Very gradually, they manage to deal with their grief, and Susie, watching from the afterlife, says that the "lovely bones" are the bonds that have formed and/or strengthened between people after her death.
  • Mundane Afterlife: Susie's heaven is mostly just nice things from her life. Subverted at the end of the novel when she learns to accept her death along with the rest of her family and she moves on to the next tier of heaven that is described as very beautiful, more so than she can describe.
  • Nostalgia Heaven: It's stated that each person's version of heaven is what they would have found most appealing in life; Susie's (in the book, at least) includes a high school and a duplex (because she wanted one while she was alive).
  • Not Growing Up Sucks: Since Susie died young, she is envious of things her friends and sister experience as they grow up that she never will, which later motivates her to have sex with Ray when she's in Ruth's body.
  • Not the First Victim: Midway through, it's revealed that Susie was just one of several girls that Harvey killed— one of them just so happens to be Holly.
  • Obviously Evil: Mr. Harvey may as well have "serial killer" written on his forehead.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: In addition to below, the book has the dead able to see and "hover" over the living as Susie says but at times they can break through and the living can see them in form or their image. Why or how it does sometimes and not others is not ever really addressed. Susie herself sees Harvey's other victims taking up space when she watches her sister break in, implying they too are hovering watching, but Susie doesn't seem to actually "meet" them until a later scene in Heaven at a tree.
  • Our Souls Are Different : A soul possessing someone psychic is pretty common, the person whose body is being used getting to go up to Heaven in that moment, that's pretty much all Ruth. Susie even notes that Ruth is "breaking all the rules" by doing this.
    • The watching the living part also seems to be different for different souls. Franny tells her she has to give up on watching the Earth but she and her grandfather still do. Harvey's other victims appear able to appear as ghosts and hover over Earth at times relating to him. However women who died in New York have to ask Susie about if Ruth has found where they died yet.
  • Parental Abandonment: When Susie's mom leaves her family and goes to the other side of the country for several years.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Due to the above-mentioned Parental Abandonment and his father's fragile condition, Lynn and Hal help raise Buckley.
    • Hal is very involved in Samuel's life, and is the only Heckler relative present at his major life events; because of this, readers can be forgiven for forgetting that the Heckler boys even have living parents.
  • The Perfect Crime: One of the games played in heaven is "perfect murder", where the dead try to come up with exactly that. Susie always picks an icicle, because it melts after it's used to kill the victim. Becomes foreshadowing to Mr. Harvey's own death.
  • Phone Call from the Dead: Susie attempts this in Ruth's body. She only gets one turn so Buckley doesn't get to know who it was that called.
  • Posthumous Character: Susie, but also Holly and the other girls she meets in the In Between, who are implied to be Harvey's previous victims.
  • Posthumous Narration: Susie narrates from the point of being dead. While Susie is young, it is worth remembering that sometimes she jumps around and comes back to smaller memories outside of the linear narration following her death. This doesn't really present her as a Unreliable Narrator, but is important to remember.
  • Put on a Bus: Many, many characters in the book that you think are major are actually minor and, once their part is served, you don't see them again. Chief Case: Susie's best friend, Clarissa. Seems like a main, but is never spoken of again after the incident that put Susie's dad in the hospital.
  • Rape as Drama: In the novel, Susie is raped before she is murdered, and it's described in graphic detail.
  • "Rear Window" Investigation: What Lindsey ends up doing at George Harvey's house. She cases it and takes a time when he is not home to break in and search for clues.
  • Resurrected Romance: Susie and Ray experience this, but only briefly.
  • Revenge: Jack's goal going into the cornfield is to take revenge on Harvey for killing his daughter. It doesn't work as he runs into Clarissa and Brian instead, and he ends up needing a new knee.
  • School of No Studying: Invoked in Susie's heaven—it's built around a high school, since she never got old enough to attend during her life, where there are never any classes to attend.
  • Serial Killer: Mr. Harvey has raped and killed several young girls in his life through various means, which Susie recounts to the reader.
  • The '70s: The setting.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: A rare use of this trope as a narrative important feature. Susie have died with her only sexual experience was a rape before her murder, tends to avoid watching her loved ones engage in sex. She usually watches the build up but then leaves to watch someone else. This comes to a head when she uses her time on Earth to claim one for herself. Which notably her rape and reclaimed moment averted this trope.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Holly, Susie's roommate in Heaven doesn't reveal her real name but Holly she uses as a reference to Breakfast at Tiffany's
    • Also Ray enjoys using Othello as a reference after it is assigned as reading in the story. He even calls himself "The Moor" in his love note to Susie.
  • Shrine to the Fallen: Western Version Susie's room originally is this to the family, Susie even describes it as such. This is later altered as Grandma Lynn moves in, and by the end, the family is donating some of her things away.
  • Snooping Little Kid: Lindsey, when she sneaks into the killer's house to find proof following on her father's suspicions.
  • Suburban Gothic: Told from the point of view of a teenage girl watching her family from the afterlife after she is raped and murdered by a neighbor on her way home from school. The novel follows Susie as she learns that her neighbor is a serial killer and her family as her father looses himself in trying to find her killer and her mother has an affair and eventually leaves the family.
  • Summer Campy: One chapter takes place at the "Gifted Camp" where the smartest kids go for a few weeks. Lindsey, Samuel and Ruth are all attendees at that year's event.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Rather than a victorious story about Susie's murderer getting caught and brought to justice, the book focuses on how Susie's death affects her family and friends. As in real life, everyone grieves in different ways - some accept Susie's death faster than others. By the book's end, years after the murder, the family is finally coming to terms with it to the point of getting rid of some of Susie's old things.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Looking into Mr. Harvey's life, Susie sees him more for what he is - a man still traumatized by Parental Abandonment, who seems unable to repress the urge to rape and murder young girls like her. Even while hating him, she can't help pity him to a certain degree.
  • Teen Genius: Lindsey and Ruth are classical examples. Interestingly at the gifted camp Samuel is selected as someone who can take a part an engine and rebuild it by mind is looked down upon for not belonging in this trope.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. Heaven has Frannie the intake counselor, whose tasks include dispensing Kool-Aid and urging the girls to accept their deaths and move on. That said, she quite cruelly reminds Susie how easily her murderer lured her into a trap ("Like taking candy from a baby") mere moments after dispensing this advice. So it's not quite clear how effective a therapist she is.
    • In the book, Lindsey mentions that she decided to become a therapist while at college, probably so that she can help people going through what she went through.
  • This Is My Story: Susie narrated the story of her life, death, and the life of her family and friends after she dies.
  • Time Skip: An interlude chapter in the novel appropriately titled "Snapshots" illustrates this.
  • Title Drop: Before the epilogue Susie finally mentions The Lovely Bones and what they are. See Word Salad Title below.
  • Together in Death: We get two literal pairs. Susie gets quite heartwarming reunions with her grandfather and dog Holiday within her narration.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Justified; sounds kind of weird to say The '70s were a more innocent time, but nowadays even a kid would know not to go in that hole. Speaking more broadly, the Alphabet Murders and the Freeway Phantom killings took place just a year or two before Susie's death. These were the subjects of huge national headlines and discussion. Warnings against "perverts" or "sex maniacs" were rife. What everyone at the time might not have caught onto was the fact that often the "pervert" is a neighbor or relative - which we still haven't today, as only a very small percentage of child abductions are committed by actual strangers, but try convincing people of this even now.
  • Word Salad Title: Just what are the lovely bones? Susie refers to them as the bonds formed between people that were affected by her death.