Susie says that when she first entered heaven, she thought that everyone around her saw exactly what she saw. She assumed that everyone’s heaven resembled the building of the local high school in Norristown, Fairfax High School. When Susie was alive, she says, she often made her father drive her past the building just so she could imagine herself as a student there. High school in Susie’s county starts in tenth grade, and by the middle of her ninth-grade year, when she was murdered, Susie could hardly think of anything but finally getting to go to high school. She imagined that she would go by the name “Suzanne,” that she would wear her hair feathered, that she would have a great body, and that her fellow students would “worship” her for her goodness and ability to handle anything that came her way.
Susie’s heaven is a place that reflects the fulfillment of her earthly desires. When Susie was alive, she wanted more than anything to be a popular high-schooler, adored by her classmates and looked up to as a paragon of goodness. In heaven, Susie gets to realize her dream of being in high school. Little does Susie know that her dream will, on Earth, also come true in a way, as her murder and its investigation paint her all through Norristown as a saint-like figure, gone too soon.
Susie realizes after a few days in heaven that the shot-putters, soccer players, and other people or “students” milling about the buildings “[a]re all in their own version of heaven,” versions which just happen to fit with Susie’s version. On her third day in heaven, she meets her roommate, Holly. Holly is sitting on the swings, reading a book in an unrecognizable alphabet, which Susie believes to be Vietnamese. Holly, who had had an accent on Earth, wanted no accent in heaven, and so she has none. Holly reveals she has been in heaven for only three days—just like Susie. Holly asks Susie if she likes it in heaven, and Susie answers that she does not. Holly, sadly, agrees.
Susie explores the mechanics of the afterlife, beginning to understand that heaven is a complex and multi-faceted realm in which everyone’s desires are, in their own way, met. Heaven, in this way, provides a kind of comfort and justice. Holly and Susie bond instantly in heaven—their ideas of the perfect afterlife overlap, as do their frustration and disappointment with having been removed from life on Earth.
Franny, who is Susie and Holly’s intake counselor, guides them through their early days in heaven. Franny, in her mid-forties, is old enough to be the girls’ mothers, and Holly and Susie soon realize that Franny has been assigned to them because both of them miss their own mothers. On Earth, Franny had been a social worker for the homeless and destitute, and in heaven, her dream is to serve others and be rewarded only by gratitude. Franny, too, died horribly on earth, after being shot in the face by a man looking for his wife. On the fifth day, when Holly and Susie complain to Franny of their boredom, Franny tells the girls that all they have to do is desire something, understand why, and wait for it to come. Holly and Susie conjure for themselves a duplex which looks out onto a park.
Heaven, in attempting to provide Susie and Holly with everything they desire, has given them each a mother figure. But as the girls are learning, the biggest desires are the ones that unfortunately can never be fulfilled. Franny will never be the girls’ mothers, and though her presence is a comfort and she is helpful to them in navigating their new world, she cannot give them everything they want or replace what they have lost.
As Susie begins to desire more and more, she realizes that what she really wants is to be allowed to grow up, and learn all the things she never was able to on earth. Susie tells Franny that she wants to live, but Franny tells Susie that’s not possible. Holly asks Franny if they can at least watch the living. Susie echoes Holly’s desire to watch “whole lives from beginning to end, to see how they did it [and] to know the secrets.” Franny tells the girls that even if they watch lives on Earth, they won’t experience them.
Susie’s simple desires have all been met—her heaven mirrors her greatest dream on Earth, and her intake counselor is reminiscent of her own mother. But Susie’s desire to rejoin the world of the living, or at least to understand the “secrets” of what it means to live a full life on Earth, is one that even Franny cannot help her fulfill.
Susie and Holly set out to explore. Sometimes, Holly and Susie get separated when Holly goes to the part of her heaven that does not overlap with Susie’s, and though Susie misses her, it is an “odd sort of missing,” as Susie knows the meaning of forever now and understands that she will always see Holly again. As she wanders her heaven, Susie laments that she cannot have the thing she wants most: for Mr. Harvey to be dead, and for her to be alive. Nevertheless, Susie begins to believe that if she watches closely, and truly desires to, she can change the lives of those she has loved and left behind on Earth.
As Susie comes to terms with the concept of eternity, she is also forced to reckon with the great injustice that has been done to her and to her family. Unable to quench her desire for justice or for a return to Earth, but still secretly wishing for both of these things, she sets out to try and test the limits of her powers, and attempt to cross the boundary between her new life and her old one.
On December ninth, Jack Salmon, Susie’s father, takes a phone call from the police. The lead detective on the case, Len Fenerman, delivers horrible news: the police have found a body part. Jack asks the police if this means they’re certain that Susie is dead—Fenerman replies that “nothing is ever certain,” and this line is what Jack later repeats to Abigail when he shares the bad news. Abigail, Susie’s mother, has been providing the police with detailed descriptions of what Susie carried and wore the day she went missing, including her jangly charm bracelet. Abigail is the only one who knows the meaning of each charm, and why Susie liked them. As Susie watches Abigail deliver these small nuggets of information to the police, she is touched, but also knows how futile Abigail’s efforts are.
Back on Earth, a maelstrom of pain, anxiety, and grief has formed around Susie’s disappearance. As evidence begins to surface, a new chapter in the investigation begins, and the lead detective on Susie’s case knows that things do not look good. Meanwhile, Susie’s parents, overwhelmed with grief and isolated in their desire to be reunited with their daughter, grasp at any hint of hope and inundate the police with information they hope will be helpful, even in the face of doubt, disappointment, and piece after piece of bad news.
The next morning, Jack pours a bottle of scotch down the sink. Lindsey, Susie’s younger sister, asks him why. Jack confesses that he is afraid he will drink the scotch if he keeps it around. Lindsey asks Jack who he was on the phone with last night, and whether it was a cop. She asks Jack not to lie to her. Jack tells Lindsey that the police have found a body part belonging to Susie. Lindsey sits down at the kitchen table, and announces that she is going to be sick, but first she asks Jack to tell her what body part the police found. Jack puts a metal mixing bowl in front of Lindsey and tells her that a neighbor’s dog found Susie’s elbow. Lindsey immediately throws up into the bowl.
Whereas Jack and Abigail react to the news about Susie’s elbow being found with controlled anxiety tinged with hope, Lindsey knows what the news means and reacts violently and physically towards it. Lindsey, who will become the most stoic of the Salmons, experiences this one moment of physical distress and revulsion—her first and last public, outward display of grief over the loss of her sister.
Later that morning, Susie watches as the police rope off the cornfield and begin their search. The bad weather has affected the landscape, but even so the police can see a patch of land that has obviously been recently disturbed. As the police begin digging, they grow frustrated with their inability to turn up a body; Susie, however, reveals that later the lab will find dense concentrations of her blood mixed with the dirt.
As Susie watches the investigation get under way, she is relieved to see the police headed in the right direction. She knows that Mr. Harvey has destroyed all evidence of the structure in which she was murdered, but she also knows that the ground still contains the secret knowledge of what transpired there.
The Salmons remain at home during the search. Buckley, Susie’s four-year-old brother, is over at a friend’s house—his parents have told him that Susie is merely on an “extended sleepover” at her friend Clarissa’s. As Susie watches the police continue to dig, she grows frustrated that she cannot guide or help them. Eventually, a policeman raises his hand, and the other cops gather around him in a huddle to see what he has found. After a minute, Detective Fenerman breaks from the huddle and turns to the line of neighbors gathered at the edge of the police tape. He summons a woman who has a child in Susie’s school, and a junior officer leads her over to the other officer’s find.
The search is not just a police effort, but a community one. The whole neighborhood has been shaken by the news of Susie’s disappearance, and Sebold shows her readers just how invested people are in the search by revealing that a crowd of people are waiting just at the edge of the police’s investigation.
Fenerman holds up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and asks the woman if her child is reading it in school. She answers yes, and confirms that her child is in the ninth grade—Susie’s grade. The police cross-reference the woman’s knowledge of the ninth-grade syllabus with confirmation from Susie’s English teacher, Mrs. Dewitt, and then Fenerman calls Susie’s parents to tell them they believe they have found one of Susie’s schoolbooks. Though evidence is mounting, Jack and Abigail continue to explain away the policemen’s finds, refusing to believe that their daughter is dead.
Len Fenerman and the police force are turning up more and more evidence pointing to the fact that Susie has been murdered, but the Salmons continue to hold out hope. As the neighborhood is drawn into the investigation more and more, and teachers from Susie’s school are called upon to bear witness to the police’s findings, the sense that Susie is truly gone becomes more and more undeniable to everyone but her parents.
Two days later, the police find Susie’s notes from biology class. Along with her class notes there is another piece of paper, the writing on it in another hand: Ray Singh’s. From heaven, Susie explains that Ray had written Susie a love note and tucked it into her notebook on the day she disappeared—she had never gotten to read it. Ray Singh becomes the first suspect in the case, though he has an alibi. Ray’s father teaches postcolonial history at the University of Pennsylvania, and on the day of Susie’s murder, had brought Ray along with him to one of his lectures, resulting in an absence from school which initially was seen as evidence of his guilt. After Ray’s presence at his father’s lecture is confirmed, his innocence is as well. Rumors continue to follow Ray throughout school, however, and he becomes something of an outcast.
Susie’s sweet memories of Ray Singh allow the reader to know that Ray is innocent—he was only ever kind to her, and his kiss was a bright spot in Susie’s young life. Watching him be singled out as a suspect and treated, for a time, like a criminal, drives Susie nuts—she has set out to attempt to influence lives and events on Earth, but finds herself enormously frustrated with the lack of influence she is able to exert on the world of the living. This comes as a disappointment to Susie, doubling her sense of injustice.
Watching all of this madness makes Susie crazy. She is miserable not to be able to steer the police towards Mr. Harvey’s house, right down the street from her parents’ house. She watches as Mr. Harvey carves parts for a gothic dollhouse he is building, watches the news nonchalantly, and wears his own innocence “like a comfortable old coat.” Killing Susie has calmed the “riot” inside of him, and he follows the investigation blithely and without worry that he will ever be implicated.
While an actual “riot” overtakes the city of Norristown, the man responsible for it—George Harvey—is able to enjoy the calm and serenity he feels in the wake of a fresh kill. This is an injustice that Susie can hardly bear, and it is made even worse by Harvey’s smug confidence in the fact that he will never be caught.
On December 15th, Len Fenerman knocks on the Salmons’ front door. In the living room, he sits down with Jack, Lindsey, and Abigail and reveals that the police have found yet another personal item of Susie’s. He holds up a plastic evidence bag with Susie’s hat inside, and upon seeing it, something breaks inside Abigail—she had wanted to believe that Susie was still alive, but now she knows deep down that her daughter is dead. Len reveals that testing the fibers of the hat showed them to be covered in Susie’s saliva, and explains that this means that whoever accosted Susie had used the hat to gag her. Abigail tears the hat from Len’s hands, hunches herself over it, and sobs.
Finally, the Salmons begin to realize that the evidence in Susie’s case does all point to her murder. The hat is a symbol of Abigail’s love for Susie—it is an ugly thing, and childish with its added jingle bells, but it was made in an attempt to bridge a gap between them. As the reader learns that Abigail is and always has been a somewhat reluctant mother, her grief breaking to the surface at the discovery of the hat begins to make more and more sense.
Jack leads Len to the door, where Len tells him that going forward, the police are now working under the assumption that Susie has been killed. Lindsey overhears this, but it is something that she has already known, on some level. Abigail, in the next room, begins to wail. Jack protests, saying that there can’t be a murder investigation without a body, but Len insists that all evidence points to Susie’s death. Len leaves, and Jack, unable to face Lindsey or Abigail, heads upstairs to find the family dog, Holiday. He buries his face in Holiday’s neck and allows himself to cry. At four that afternoon, after hours of moving through the house apart, Jack and Abigail finally end up in the same room. Abigail says the word “Mother,” and Jack nods his head. He then makes a phone call to Abigail’s mother, Grandma Lynn.
As their grief reaches a breaking point and spills over, Jack, Abigail, and Lindsey find themselves unable to face one another. Their pain is so deep, their anger so raw, and their shame—both at not having been able to protect Susie and not having been able to accept the truth of her murder earlier—isolate and alienate them from one another. Holiday, the only member of the family other than Buckley who is blissful in his ignorance, is the only one who can provide any of them any comfort. Abigail and Jack come together at last, somewhat begrudgingly, over the painful realization that they must now begin to share the news Len has just delivered.
Susie watches as Lindsey sits alone in her room and works on numbing and “hardening” herself. Abigail tells Lindsey that she does not have to go to school for the last week before Christmas, but Lindsey chooses to anyway. In homeroom, Mrs. Dewitt, the English teacher, tells Lindsey that the principal wants to see her. Lindsey gathers her things as her classmates, all around her, whisper about her, and then heads to the principal’s office. Principal Caden tells Lindsey that he is sorry for her loss; Lindsey combatively asks what exactly her loss is. Mr. Caden sits beside Lindsey on the sofa in his office and tells her that he is available if she wants to talk about the loss. Lindsey petulantly pats her pockets and sweater, telling the principal that she wasn’t aware she had “lost” anything.
Susie has watched her parents begin to drown in their grief, and as she turns her attention to her younger sister Lindsey, she begins to notice something peculiar. Lindsey’s grief is insular, and she chooses to press on with something difficult—returning to school—even knowing that she will be the subject of pity, gossip, and misunderstanding. Lindsey is angry, and lashes out in her grief rather than allowing herself to feel sadness or a sense of injustice. This marks her as separate from the rest of her family, and thus doubly alienated by her sister’s loss.
Mr. Caden tells Lindsey that she is the only Salmon girl now—she must carry on her sister’s legacy, and carve out her own as well. Mr. Caden tells Lindsey that Mr. Dewitt—Mrs. Dewitt’s husband—is coaching a girls’ soccer team in the spring, and asks Lindsey if she would be interested. Lindsey replies that she does not want to play soccer on a field twenty feet away from where her sister was murdered. Mr. Caden, flummoxed, apologizes again for Lindsey’s loss and excuses her from the office. That night, Susie watches as Lindsey does pushups, bicep curls, and breathing exercises alone in her room, focusing on nothing but her own breath.
Mr. Caden reaching out to Lindsey is well-meaning, but Lindsey points out the obvious: nothing can distract her, physically or psychologically, from her sister’s loss. Lindsey is at once denying the loss, and shoving it in people’s faces—she herself is still figuring out how to negotiate the new terrain on which she finds herself. At home, Lindsey retreats into herself, seemingly attempting—as she did at school—to completely isolate herself from anyone who might attempt to help her.
Susie, in the main square of her heaven, watches from a gazebo—on Earth, she had always been jealous of a neighbor’s gazebo, and so in heaven she has her own. Susie looks down at her family’s kitchen, considering a drawing of Buckley’s which Abigail placed on the fridge just hours before Susie’ death: a thick blue line separating the air and the ground. Susie sees the line Buckley drew as a real place—an “Inbetween,” where heaven and Earth meet.
Susie’s heaven continues to fill with the small, trivial things she desired on Earth, though actual influence and fulfillment continue to elude her. In this passage, Sebold shows Buckley—the youngest Salmon, and the only member of the family still in the dark about Susie’s death—being able to seemingly sense things beyond the world of the living.
In heaven, Susie finds herself desiring simple things and receiving them right away. Susie loves dogs, and so her heaven becomes filled with every breed of dog imaginable. Holly and Susie have dresses in every shade, pattern, and length they desire, and at nights, they gather with the other residents of heaven and collectively play music in a kind of Evensong—a church service consisting of music, prayers, and songs.
There is peace and plenty in heaven, and Susie slowly begins to find a community of friends and family whose desires overlap with her own. The meditative and slightly mournful ritual of the Evensong symbolizes Susie’s reluctant transition into accepting that her life is in heaven now, not on Earth, and only in heaven will she be able to find fulfilment.