Susie Salmon’s murder is directly preceded by a gruesome rape at the hands of George Harvey, a neighbor and acquaintance of her parents. At fourteen, Susie had been on the verge of coming into her own as a young woman: she had developed feelings for a classmate, Ray Singh, and privately nursed a crush on the singer David Cassidy of The Partridge Family. Susie’s transition into the world of love—and indeed, her budding sexuality—were abruptly and violently interrupted by an unspeakable act of evil. Subsequently, she watches from heaven as her friends and family embark upon their own romantic and sexual relationships that blossom, wither, grow, and change. Susie watches her mother Abigail begin an affair with the detective covering Susie’s murder, Len Fenerman; she watches as her sister Lindsey falls in love with and eventually builds a life with Samuel Heckler; and she watches as Ray Singh and Ruth Connors navigate their complicated attraction (or lack of attraction) to one another. Susie herself continues to love Ray from afar. Through describing these various relationships, Sebold shows that death, grief, and tragedy cannot stand in the way of the power of love, sex, romance, and intimacy—love is stronger than death, and sexual attraction has the power to destroy lives, but also to help in healing and redeeming them.
As the investigation goes on and the Salmon family becomes more and more frustrated with the lack of leads, Jack and Abigail lean more and more heavily on the police—specifically on Len Fenerman, the lead detective. One day, Abigail kisses Len as Susie watches from heaven. Susie realizes that her mother has been denying for years the “needy part of her,” and is now unleashing it upon Len, hoping that “on the other side of his kiss there could be a new life.” Abigail’s decision to begin an affair with Len is a way for her to cope with the loss of her daughter and the grief she feels for herself, her child, and her family. Rather than closing herself off to the possibility of happiness, excitement, and catharsis, Abigail dives headlong into it, either not realizing or not caring that it may derail her life even further.
Susie had a crush on Ray Singh when she was alive, and her death doesn’t change this. Susie watches Ray graduate high school, go on to college, and all the while maintain a friendship and a flirtation with Ruth Connors—a relationship based in their mutual obsession with Susie’s death. Susie keeps close tabs on Ruth and Ray as they experiment with kissing one another, and notices the slight shifts in their feelings as they grow closer over the years. Though Ruth initially purports to feel no real desire for Ray, she eventually realizes that she is in fact attracted to him, though the two of them never act on their feelings. In the novel’s climax, Susie passes into Ruth’s body in a moment of divine intervention. Mr. Harvey, who has returned to Norristown to survey the neighborhood he left, drives past Ruth and Ray on the street, and in an overwhelming moment Ruth sees all the women he has killed “stuffed in [his] car in blood-colored gowns.” Susie falls to Earth and inhabits Ruth’s body, while Ruth ascends to heaven. During her short time in a body, Susie fulfills her long-held desire to make love to Ray, and to have a positive sexual experience with someone she loves. Ray realizes that Ruth is really Susie, and though the moment seems bizarre and supernatural, he consents to have sex with Susie-as-Ruth. Susie re-ascends to heaven shortly after their lovemaking, and looks down upon Ruth and Ray as they hold one another, contemplating the magnitude of the experiences they have just had separately, but which will now bind them together in a completely unique way. This moment serves to allow Susie the gift of a positive experience of love and sex, after her body was brutalized, destroyed, and disrespected so completely during her final moments on earth. It demonstrates the redemptive power of healthy romantic and sexual love, and humanizes Susie by demonstrating that, even in death, she has “needy parts” of her own.
Lindsey’s relationship with her high school sweetheart, Samuel Heckler, is the relationship Susie watches with the most interest, intensity, and occasionally jealousy. As Susie watches Lindsey share her first kiss with Samuel, and eventually sleep with him, marry him, and carry his child, there is a marked tension between the joy Susie experiences and the envy she feels toward her sister. Susie was brutalized, raped, and humiliated during her first sexual encounter, and now she watches her sister move through the phases of a relationship joyfully, envying the fact that Lindsey has “surpassed” her. Eventually, after her encounter with Ray, Susie comes to a place in her own healing where she is able to be happy for Lindsey, and celebrate the strides her sister has made toward her own recovery, finding joy, safety, and comfort in her romance with Samuel.
Love and sex are always complicated topics, in life as well as in fiction, and the way they are approached in The Lovely Bones is no different. Love and sex are fraught—tinged with fear and sometimes even horror—but ultimately serve as a vehicle for fulfillment, transformation, and even redemption for many characters who have experienced great sorrow, trauma, and loss.
Love and Sex ThemeTracker
Love and Sex Quotes in The Lovely Bones
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.