Some books are like old friends. Even though you know them well, return visits are always enjoyable and you remember just why you loved them in the first place. I've read The Lovely Bones several times, but each time I do I drift back into the story of Susie Salmon and the characters are familiar and comforting, even as I experience the sadness and heartache with them over again.
One day, walking home from school, 14-year-old Susie runs into a creepy neighbor who convinces her to investigate a room that he built under the cornfield that is the shortcut between the school and the Salmon home. Susie's natural curiosity is what leads her into the underground space, but once down there she realizes that something is very, very wrong. Harvey refuses to let her leave, then pins her down, rapes her, dismembers her, and erases any evidence of the crime. The only lead that police have is the hat that Susie had on her, made by her mother, until a neighborhood dog turns up with an elbow in his mouth and the Salmon family realizes that Susie is never coming home.
Told from Susie's point of view, looking down on her family from her heaven, the story is one of loss and pain but it's also a tale of how a family tries to move on from a tragedy that creates cracks in the foundation. Susie explores the efforts of her father, mother, sister, and brother as they attempt to navigate a world without her in it. Sebold treats what is a horrific and devastating situation with suprising grace and imagination, and the characters are what make the novel so worthwhile. I came to love the Salmon family, even as they make mistakes and flounder. I watch as her father battles the deaf ears on which fall his conviction that Harvey is the murderer; as her sister Lindsey tries to move beyond being the "dead girl's sister;" as baby brother Buckley attempts to make sense of what it means that Susie is gone; as Mrs. Salmon does the only thing she can to survive by methodically distancing herself from her family; and as Susie's maternal grandmother, Grandma Lynn, becomes the unlikely glue that holds this fractured collection of broken people together.
Sebold takes a tale of horror and turns it into one of redemption, a rare gift indeed, but at the same time she never takes away from the devastation of the emotional chasm that is left by the unnecessary death of a young girl just beginning to discover who she is. The story is real enough to be uncomfortable but at the same time powerfully endearing, and it has kept me coming back again and again, as I suspect it will for years to come.