Mostly Suburban Pennsylvania and the Afterlife, 1973 - 1984
The Lovely Bones is set mostly in an unnamed Pennsylvania suburb (called Norristown in the film version). Alice Sebold grew up in the suburbs, which she refers to as "Nowhere USA" and draws from the experience for this novel. She says, "Who would have thought that the place I most despised growing up – where I felt like the weirdest freak and the biggest loser – would turn out to be a gift to me" (source).
The novel also follows Ruth Connors to New York City, Mr. Harvey to Connecticut and Maine, and Abigail Salmon to California. If that's not exciting enough, it features glimpses of two different heavens Susie inhabits. From these places, she observes the Earthly goings-on she describes to us.
The Lovely Bones begins on December 6, 1973, with Susie's brutal beating, rape, murder, and dismemberment by her neighbor Mr. Harvey. This is back before we knew that serial killers were commonly known about. Like Susie says, "It was still back when people believed things like that didn't happen" (1.1). This collective innocence (which the digital/informational/technological age would soon rectify) is part of why Susie consents to enter Mr. Harvey's underground trap. It's also why Detective Len Fenerman doesn't figure Harvey for a killer.
Then novel ends in the spring or summer of 1984 and weaves backwards and forwards through time from the date of Susie's death. Susie remembers her earlier life. She also learns about Mr. Harvey's, while watching the lives of those she left behind over the next ten years.
The Salmon House and The Harvey House
Mr. Harvey has positioned himself in the eye of temptation: a suburban family neighborhood, with a house overlooking the schools, the soccer field, and the cornfield. His normal-looking suburban house is a big part of his disguise of innocence, and it allows him to blend unnoticed into suburbia.
Since it's part of the same planned development, Harvey's house has the exact same floor plan as the Salmons'. In dreadful irony, Susie and Harvey occupied the same bedroom in their respective homes. While the two houses might be identical in design, the designs of their respective inhabitants are totally opposite. So, Harvey's house is like the evil twin to the Salmons'.
The issue of the repeating floor plans in suburban developments is compelling to Sebold. She says,
[…] I [was] made aware […] that while I grew up hearing that there were 'a thousand stories in the naked city and none of them the same' this was as true of the look-alike houses all around me as it was of the places I lived as an adult. The difference perhaps is that you have to look harder in the suburbs, past the floor plans and into the human heart. (source).
Susie and Lindsey find the parallels between their house and Mr. Harvey's quite compelling as well. In the climactic scene where Lindsey daringly (and dangerously!) infiltrates Harvey's house, Lindsey goes into memory overload imagining the scenes that happened in her home before Susie's death. For Susie, this infiltration of her killer's home by her sister opens up information she's been seeking, the details of Harvey's hideous work. She tells us,
The architecture of my murderer's life , the bodies of the girls he'd left behind, began to reveal itself to me now that my sister was in that house. I stood in heaven. I called their names […] (14.31).
Susie sees the elements of the world, people, things, events, as parts (or bones) of structures always in the process of being built. The dead girls are the bones of Mr. Harvey and Susie's tragically interconnected stories.
Susie presents us with an intriguing vision of the afterlife. Compared with life on Earth, the afterlife offers Susie much more control over her environment. She can have it her way, with two conditions: 1) no way to go back to life on Earth, and 2) limited ability to communicate with the living. But, she can do all the Earth-watching she wants. Susie also describes two types of heavens: heaven and wide wide Heaven.
heaven: Susie's a junior high school girl who's just suffered a horrific trauma and was wrenched away from her life without any preparation. Her first heaven has a counselor (Franny), other murdered girls, kids playing sports, high schools without teachers, frolicking puppies, junk food, and fashion magazines. Like Susie says, "We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams" (2.17).
Luckily, she isn't stuck with the desires she comes to heaven with. She grows and changes, and her heaven adapts. Franny (in a Field of Dreams moment ) explains, "All you have to do is desire it, and if you desire it enough and understand why […] it will come" (2.25).
wide wide Heaven: Susie's knowledge of the cosmic design continues to grow throughout the story. She learns that if she stops worrying about her family, about why Harvey killed her, and about stopping him from killing others she can go to a different kind of heaven.
Eventually, Susie makes a transition to "wide wide Heaven" (Epilogue.15). This heaven seems to be a place where imagination, chilling out, and having fun are perfected. Susie says,
It's about flathead nails and the soft down of new leaves and wild roller coaster rides and escaped marbles that fall then hang then take you somewhere you could never have imagined in your small heaven dreams. (Epilogue.16)
Even this heaven seems desire-based, and Susie never makes the claim that everybody goes to it. According to her cosmology, your heaven might also match your religious beliefs. Hers includes Evensong, Anglican evening prayer, and the people around her share her wish to perform it.
Harvey in h/Heaven? Susie never discusses what happens to Mr. Harvey when he dies. She can see everybody on Earth, but she can't see them in the afterworld unless they are with her in her heaven. What do you think? Will Harvey go to a place where his desires are fulfilled, like Susie's are? And what are his desires? Will he still want to rape and kill, or does he have deeper desires, like having love, a family, not wanting to hurt others? Will he desire punishment for his crimes on Earth? Should he receive punishment for his crimes on Earth?
In John Milton's Paradise Lost Satan says, "The mind is its own place, and in it self/ Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (line 255). Should/could Mr. Harvey escape the hell of the mind in the afterlife? Should we be taking advice from Satan?
Hours before I died, my mother hung on the refrigerator a picture that Buckley had drawn. In the drawing a thick blue line separated the air from the ground. […] I became convinced that the thick blue line was a real place, where Heaven's horizon met Earth's. (3.175)
The Inbetween seems to be the border between the afterworld and Earth, as depicted by Buckley in his prescient drawing. It takes great effort on Susie's part to pass from the afterworld through the Inbetween, to the Earth, though it's easy to pass back. Sometimes (like when she's riding trains) it's not entirely clear whether Susie is just watching or actually absent from the afterworld and present on Earth in ghostly essence. There's some indication that she's simply gotten better at passing through the Inbetween to Earth.
In Peter Jackson's film adaptation, The Inbetween is the name of the heaven Susie goes to when she first dies. Critics haven't been all that enthusiastic about the film. They claim that Jackson's the Inbetween is too darn fluffy and pretty. Since Shmoop is a pillar of neutrality on such issues, we leave it to you to decide.
The sinkhole is where Mr. Harvey dumps Susie's body parts, locked inside a heavy safe. (Ironic use of a safe, isn't it?) When Ray, Ruth, and Harvey all converge there for a moment in 1982, Susie gets really excited. So excited, she manages to borrow Ruth's body so she can make love to Ray in Hal Heckler's nearby bike shop.
According to Susie's dad, the sinkhole (an opening in the earth) is a result of the collapse of an underground mine. The sinkhole constantly swallows and regurgitates the stuff that's been dumped in it. When the players converge in that area, the sinkhole is about to be covered over, and Susie's body along with it. No wonder Susie gets so excited.
The sinkhole also seems kind of analogous to Mr. Harvey. The sinkhole is a rupture in the earth, which can be dangerous, swallow things up and hold them underground. Harvey ruptures families, swallowing up their girls and holding them underground. Like the sinkhole, even when wearing a disguise of stability, Harvey is still dangerous.
From the Stolfutz Cornfield where Susie was murdered to the shack in the woods in Connecticut where Mr. Harvey murders and buries a waitress, The Lovely Bones is loaded with crime scenes. Most of them are discovered psychically by Ruth in New York City and duly recorded in her journal. This gives her great standing with the murdered woman and girls in heaven, who want badly to see their deaths recognized by the living. Like Susie (before she matures) they are needy and want to be remembered and talked about.
The way the world looks to Ruth is similar to the way it looks to Len Fenerman – full of crime scenes. But there are some differences. From Len's point of view, it's all about preserving order in society. The crime scenes are disruptions in the society. For Ruth, these disruptions dominate the landscape. She's about preserving the scenes in memory, through writing and art, and about pleasing the girls in heaven with these memorial activities.
The Victorian House and the Salmon House
Usually if you see an old abandoned house…in the rain…in a horror story, you should know better than to go into it! We're talking to you Lindsey and Samuel. Luckily, their horror story is kind of ending at this point, so it's safe for them to go inside. And it's a good thing they do, because the abandoned Victorian house proves a romantic counterpoint to all the novel's gruesome and seriously supernatural settings. In this house, Lindsey and Samuel get engaged and even stop lightning and thunder when they are about to make love.
By running home eight miles in the rain in their skivvies to keep Mr. Salmon from worrying about them, they help bring happiness and new life back into the Salmon house. Lindsey and Samuel getting married and staying in town to raise their child helps the Salmon house become a home again. Samuel and Lindsey's subsequent restoration of the old Victorian house keeps with the building/rebuilding motif running through the novel, and with its ultimate insistence on hope for renewal and after tragedy.