The Salmon family is the heart and soul of the narrative of The Lovely Bones. Over the course of the novel, readers follow the Salmon family over the span of nearly a decade. Through Susie’s eyes, readers observe the family’s most intimate moments, their struggles with one another and the world around them, their failures and triumphs, their connections and breakdowns. The idea of family, though, is complicated on several levels. Susie’s “family” in heaven comforts her in moments of need and despair, and through them she begins to understand that, although nothing will ever replace her mother and father, family can come in many forms. Sebold argues that the families one finds and makes are as important and special as the family one is born into. Through her characters’ journeys, Sebold celebrates the love that family engenders, even after years—or a lifetime—spent apart.
Susie’s recollections of her childhood are sweet and happy, but from beyond the veil of death she also reflects on the oddities, schisms, and undercurrents of pain and longing which she noticed while still alive but was afraid of confronting. Susie describes taking a photograph of her mother early one morning, when her mother did not realize she was being watched. Susie finally understood the nickname Jack had always used for Abigail—“Ocean Eyes”—as meant not to describe the color of her irises but the depths and unknowability of what lay behind her eyes. Susie comes to understand, while in heaven, that her mother had perhaps never even wanted to be a mother, and when Abigail leaves for California, the rest of the Salmons, too, understand the rifts that have arisen but remained ignored in their family over the years. When Grandma Lynn arrives after her daughter leaves town, the gap between families that are made and born grows more complicated. Though a blood relative, when Grandma Lynn steps into a maternal role in her daughter’s family, a new kind of family results—a family that is pieced together, and which is even stronger for all its losses.
Susie finds company and happiness in heaven, and even reunites with her grandfather, who had died many years earlier. Though Susie continues to long for her family back on earth, she does create a kind of family with the people she meets in her heaven. When she falls to earth and then is forced to return, Susie finds it much easier to go back to heaven than it had been to arrive the first time, as she is returning to the comfort of her new, chosen family of kindred spirits.
At the end of the novel, though Susie has moved on from studying life down on earth as closely as she once did, she admits that she still checks in on her family every once in a while. She can’t help thinking of them any more than they can help thinking of her. Susie accepts that she only exists in her family’s memories now, as she is “meant to be,” knowing that she will always be a part of the family she was born to, though she left them too soon.
Lindsey and Samuel’s love, which begins when Lindsey is in junior high and takes them through their college graduation and beyond, demonstrates the two of them coming together to make their own little family. Samuel and Lindsey nourish and understand one another, and Samuel’s knowledge of Lindsey’s deep pain allows him to be close to her and take care of her in a way that few couples experience. In the final pages of the novel, Susie reveals that the two of them have a daughter named Abigail Suzanne: their baby’s name honors their family’s past even as the child herself represents its future.
One of the great injustices of Susie’s death is her inability to experience what it means to be a part of a family as one goes through life and grows older. As Susie attempts to soothe the pain she feels over the loss of her family, she discovers that family is more than just blood. Family consists of the connections one chooses to foster, the love one chooses to give, and the love one allows oneself to receive. In the place of a biological family, Sebold shows, the bonds and affections of a chosen family can be just as strong, and in some ways even stronger.
Family and Community ThemeTracker
Family and Community Quotes in The Lovely Bones
Inside the snow globe on my father’s desk, there was a penguin wearing a red-and-white-striped scarf. When I was little my father would pull me into his lap and reach for the snow globe. He would turn it over, letting all the snow collect on the top, then quickly invert it. The two of us watched the snow fall gently around the penguin. The penguin was alone in there, I thought, and I worried for him. When I told my father this, he said, "Don't worry Susie; he has a nice life. He's trapped in a perfect world."
My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer. My murderer believed in old-fashioned things like eggshells and coffee grounds, which he said his own mother had used. My father came home smiling, making jokes about how the man's garden might be beautiful but it would stink to high heaven once a heat wave hit.
When the roll came back from the Kodak plant in a special heavy envelope, I could see the difference immediately. There was only one picture in which my mother was Abigail. It was that first one, the one taken of her unawares, the one captured before the click startled her into the mother of the birthday girl, owner of the happy dog, wife to the loving man, and mother again to another girl and a cherished boy. Homemaker. Gardener. Sunny neighbor. My mother's eyes were oceans, and inside them there was loss. I thought I had my whole life to understand them, but that was the only day I had. Once upon Earth I saw her as Abigail, and then I let it slip effortlessly back, my fascination held in check by wanting her to be that mother and envelop me as that mother.
The bottles, all of them, lay broken on the floor, the sails and boat bodies strewn among them. He stood in the wreckage. It was then that, without knowing how, I revealed myself. In every piece of glass, in every shard and sliver, I cast my face. My father glanced down and around him, his eyes roving across the room. Wild. It was just for a second, and then I was gone. He was quiet for a moment, and then he laughed—a howl coming up from the bottom of his stomach. He laughed so loud and deep, I shook with it in my heaven.
I did begin to wonder what the word heaven meant. I thought, if this were heaven, truly heaven, it would be where my grandparents lived. Where my father's father, my favorite of them all, would lift me up and dance with me. I would feel only joy and have no memory, no cornfield and no grave.
"You can have that," Franny said to me. "Plenty of people do."
"How do you make the switch?" I asked.
"It's not as easy as you might think," she said. "You have to stop desiring certain answers."
"I don't get it."
"If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling," she said, "you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on Earth."
This seemed impossible to me.
Under a rowboat that was too old and worn to float, Lindsey lay down on the earth with Samuel Heckler, and he held her. Samuel's back was flush against the ground, and he brought my sister close in to his body to protect her from the dampness of the quick summer rain. Their breath began to heat the small space beneath the boat, and he could not stop it—his penis stiffened inside his jeans.
Lindsey reached her hand over.
"I'm sorry…” He began.
"I'm ready," my sister said.
At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I'd never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.
And I watched that flat red mouth move across an invisible line that separated her from the rest of the world. She pulled Len in and kissed him on the mouth. He seemed to hesitate at first. His body tensed, telling him NO, but that NO became vague and cloudy, became air sucked into the intake fan of the humming hydrant beside them. She reached up and unbuttoned her raincoat. He placed his hand against the thin gauzy material of her summer gown… I knew what was happening. Her rage, her loss, her despair. The whole life lost tumbling out in an arc on that roof, clogging up her being. She needed Len to drive the dead daughter out. He pushed her back into the stucco surface of the wall as they kissed, and my mother held on to him as if on the other side of his kiss there could be a new life.
My neighbors and teachers, friends and family, circled an arbitrary spot not far from where I'd been killed. My father, sister and brother heard the singing again once they were outside. Everything in my father leaned and pitched toward the warmth and light. He wanted so badly to have me remembered in the minds and hearts of everyone. I knew something as I watched: almost everyone was saying goodbye to me. I was becoming one of many little-girl-losts. They would go back to their homes and put me to rest, a letter from the past never reopened or reread.
Years passed. The trees in our yard grew taller. I watched my family and my friends and neighbors, the teachers whom I'd had or imagined having, the high school I had dreamed about. As I sat in the gazebo I would pretend instead that I was sitting on the topmost branch of the maple under which my brother had swallowed a stick and still played hide-and-seek with Nate, or I would perch on the railing of a stairwell in New York and wait for Ruth to pass near. I would study with Ray. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway on a warm afternoon of salty air with my mother. But I would end each day with my father in his den. I would lay these photographs down in my mind, those gathered from my constant watching, and I could trace how one thing—my death—connected these images to a single source. No one could have predicted how my loss would change small moments on Earth. But I held on to those moments, hoarded them. None of them were lost as long as I was there watching.
At twenty-one Lindsey was many things I would never become, but I barely grieved this list anymore. Still, I roved where she roved. I collected my college diploma and rode on the back of Samuel's bike, clinging on to him with my arms wrapped around his waist, pressing into his back for warmth . . .
Okay, it was Lindsey. I realized that. But in watching her I found I could get lost more than with anyone else.
Above his bed the clock ticked off the minutes and I thought of the game Lindsey and I had played in the yard together: "he loves me/he loves me not" picked out on a daisy's petals. I could hear the clock casting my own two greatest wishes back to me in this same rhythm: "Die for me/don't die for me, die for me/don't die for me." I could not help myself, it seemed, as I tore at his weakening heart. If he died, I would have him forever. Was this so wrong to want?
On the flight to Philadelphia, she sat alone in the middle of a row of three seats. She could not help but think of how, if she were a mother traveling, there would be two seats filled beside her. One for Lindsey. One for Buckley. But though she was, by definition, a mother, she had at some point ceased to be one too. She couldn't claim that right and privilege after missing more than half a decade of their lives. She now knew that being a mother was a calling, something plenty of young girls dreamed of being. But my mother had never had that dream, and she had been punished in the most horrible and unimaginable way for never having wanted me. I watched her on the plane, and I sent a wish into the clouds for her release. Her body grew heavy with the dread of what would come but in this heaviness was at least relief. The stewardess handed her a small blue pillow and for a little while she fell asleep.
As I watched my family sip champagne, I thought about how their lives trailed backward and forward from my death and then, I saw, as Samuel took the daring step of kissing Lindsey in a room full of family, became borne aloft away from it. 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 that my death wrought 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.
And there she was again, alone and walking out in the cornfield while everyone else I cared for sat together in one room. She would always feel me and think of me. I could see that, but there was no longer anything I could do. Ruth had been a girl haunted and now she would be a woman haunted. First by accident and now by choice. All of it, the story of my life and death, was hers if she chose to tell it, even to one person at a time.