The novel's title is taken from a quotation at the story's conclusion, when Susie ponders her friends' and family's newfound strength after her death:
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.
On December 6, 1973, 14-year-old Susie Salmon takes her usual shortcut home from her school through a cornfield in Norristown, Pennsylvania. George Harvey, her 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, then dismembers her body, putting her remains in a safe that he dumps in a sinkhole. Susie's spirit flees toward her personal heaven, and in doing so, rushes past one of her classmates, social outcast Ruth Connors.
The Salmon family at first refuses to believe that Susie is dead, until a neighbor's dog finds Susie's elbow. 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. Meanwhile, another of Susie's classmates, Ray Singh, who had a crush on Susie in school and had made plans to go out with her a few days before her murder, develops a relationship with Ruth, as they are drawn together by their connection with Susie.
Later, Len Fenerman, the detective assigned to the case, tells the Salmons 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 it is Harvey returning to destroy more evidence, he runs out to confront him, armed with a baseball bat. The figure is not Harvey, but Clarissa, Susie's best friend who is dating Brian, one of Susie's classmates. As Susie watches in horror from heaven, Brian—who was going to meet Clarissa in the cornfield—nearly beats Jack to death, and Clarissa breaks Jack's knee. While he recovers from knee replacement surgery, Susie's mother, Abigail, begins cheating on Jack with the widowed Fenerman.
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. The police do not arrest him, however, which enables him to flee from Norristown. Later, evidence is discovered linking Harvey to Susie's murder as well as to those of several other girls. Meanwhile, Susie meets Harvey's other victims in heaven and sees into his traumatic childhood.
Abigail leaves Jack and eventually takes a job at a winery in California. Her mother, Grandma Lynn, moves into the Salmons' home to care for Buckley (Susie's younger brother) and Lindsey. Eight years later, Lindsey and her boyfriend, Samuel Heckler, become engaged after finishing college, find an old house in the woods owned by a classmate's father, and decide to fix it up and live there. Sometime after the celebration, while arguing with his son Buckley, Jack suffers a heart attack. The emergency prompts Abigail to return from California, but the reunion is tempered by Buckley's lingering bitterness for her having abandoned the family for most of his childhood.
Meanwhile, Harvey returns to Norristown, which has become more developed. He explores his old neighborhood and 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 and Ray are standing. Ruth 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 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, a Norristown couple finds Susie's charm bracelet but don't realize its significance, and Susie closes the story by wishing the reader "a long and happy life".Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered in the first chapter. She narrates the novel from Heaven, witnessing the events on earth and experiencing hopes and longings for the everyday things she can no longer do.
Jack Salmon, her father, who works for an insurance agency in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. After Susie's death, he is consumed with guilt at having failed to save her.
Abigail Salmon, her mother, whose growing family responsibilities frustrate her youthful dreams. After her daughter's death, she leaves her husband and moves to California, but returns years later.
Lindsey Salmon, Susie's younger sister by one year. She tries to help her father investigate Harvey.
Buckley Salmon, Susie's younger brother by 10 years. His unplanned birth forced Abigail to cancel her plans for a teaching career. He sometimes sees Susie while she watches him in her heaven.
Grandma Lynn, Abigail's mother, an eccentric alcoholic who comes to live with the Salmons when her son-in-law asks her to help Abigail cope with Susie's death. After Abigail leaves, Lynn helps raise her grandchildren.
George Harvey, the Salmons' neighbor. A serial killer of young girls, he murders Susie and goes unpunished, even though the Salmons come to suspect him. He eventually leaves Norristown to escape the investigation and continues killing as he moves across the country. Years later, he dies in an accident while stalking a potential victim. Throughout the novel Susie refers to him as Mr. Harvey, the name she had addressed him by in life.
Ruth Connors, a classmate whom Susie's spirit touches as Susie leaves the earth. Ruth becomes fascinated with Susie, despite having barely known her while she was alive, and begins writing about seeing visions of the dead.
Ray Singh, a boy from India (via England), the first and only boy to kiss Susie, who later becomes Ruth's friend. He is first suspected by the police of murdering Susie, but he later proves his alibi. He is the one Susie spends her short time on earth with that she is granted years after her death.
Ruana Singh, Ray's mother, with whom Abigail Salmon sometimes smokes cigarettes.
Samuel Heckler, Lindsey's boyfriend and later her husband.
Hal Heckler, Sam's older brother who runs a motorcycle repair shop.
Len Fenerman, the police detective in charge of investigating Susie's death. His wife commits suicide some time before the events of the novel take place, and he later has an affair with Abigail.
Clarissa, Susie's best friend, whom Susie explains that she admires, because Clarissa was always allowed to do things Susie was not, like wear platform shoes and smoke.
Nate, Buckley's best friend, who screams for help when he's choking.
Brian, Clarissa's boyfriend. He sees Jack Salmon holding a bat, with a distraught Clarissa nearby. He assumes Clarissa is Jack's victim and takes the bat, beating up Jack.
Holly, Susie's best friend in heaven. While the text does not say so explicitly, it is implied she is Vietnamese American. She has no accent and took her name from Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Franny, a woman who worked as a social worker before being shot. She becomes Susie and Holly's mentor in their Heaven.
Mr. Dewitt, the boys' soccer coach at school. Mr. Dewitt encourages Lindsey, a successful athlete, to try out for his team.
Mrs. Dewitt, Mr. Dewitt's wife, an English teacher at Susie's school. She teaches both Lindsey and Susie.
Holiday, Susie's dog.
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. Some of that could have been attributed to adroit marketing. Prior to its June publication, an excerpt was run in Seventeen. Shortly afterwards, ABC's Good Morning America chose it for its book club. The book became a popular summer read and a runaway success, with much of its sales subsequently attributed to word of mouth.
Critics also helped the novel's success by being generally positive, many noting that the story had more promise than the idea of a brutally murdered teenage girl going to heaven and following her family and friends as they get on with their lives would have suggested. "This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance", wrote Katherine Bouton in The New York Times Book Review.
The novel also sold well in other English-speaking countries, though reviews were not as glowing. While admitting the novel "has its very fine moments", The Guardian's Ali Smith ultimately said, "The Lovely Bones is so keen in the end to comfort us and make safe its world that, however well-meaning, it avoids its own ramifications". Her Observer colleague Philip Hensher was more blunt, conceding that the novel was "very readable" but "ultimately it seems like a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy".
The novel portrays heaven as a very personal thing; each dead person existing in their own individualized version of heaven, sometimes sharing similar elements with other individuals, but not able to follow into the dissimilar areas of another person's heaven. Because Susie's character is narrating the story from her own personal heaven, there are some questions over the depiction of the afterlife.
Some readers with a Fundamentalist Christian perspective faulted Susie's heaven for being utterly devoid of any apparent religious aspect. "It's a very God-free heaven, with no suggestion that anyone has been judged, or found wanting," Philip Hensher stated in The Observer.
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."
Furthermore, Sebold has stated that the book is not intended to be religious, "but if people want to take things and interpret them, then I can't do anything about that. It is a book that has faith and hope and giant universal themes in it, but it's not meant to be, 'This is the way you should look at the afterlife'".
Director Peter Jackson secured the book's film rights. In a 2005 interview, he stated the reader has "an experience when you read the book that is unlike any other. I don't want the tone or the mood to be different or lost in the film." In the same interview, regarding Susie's heaven, he said the movie version would endeavor to make it appear "somehow ethereal and emotional, but it can't be hokey". The film stars Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, Mark Wahlberg as Jack Salmon, Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, Rachel Weisz as Abigail Salmon, Susan Sarandon as Susie's Grandmother Lynn, and Rose McIver as Lindsey Salmon.
The film opened to a limited release in three U.S. theaters on December 11, 2009 and received international and wide release on January 15, 2010. It met with mixed reviews, but nonetheless garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Tucci).
As of 2017, a stage adaptation by British playwright Bryony Lavery is currently in development for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.