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The Lovely Bones | Themes

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Healing

Because The Lovely Bones is about a family coming to terms with a murder, healing is one of the book's important themes. In fact, the book's title is a reference to healing. At the end of the book, when Mrs. Salmon has returned home, Mr. Salmon is out of the hospital, and Lindsey and Sam are engaged to be married, Susie realizes that her family has finally reshaped itself into a new and beautiful configuration. "These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence," says Susie. The family has formed new connections—"sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent."

At the moment when Susie makes this discovery, her father finally accepts the fact that Lindsey is now his only daughter. His "shadow daughter," to whom he's clung for so long, is gone. Simultaneously, Lindsey finally begins to make sense of "the world without me in it." For a long time, Susie's counselor in heaven, Franny, has been advising her to let go of her old life. Now that Susie can clearly see that her family is healing, she can stop worrying about them and move on.

Alice Sebold makes clear that the only real healer is time by letting years go by before introducing the image of the lovely bones. Only gradually do Susie and her family recover, and there are many setbacks on the way. The clearest sign that the Salmons are all right comes when Lindsey and Sam name their baby Abigail Suzanne. They would not have chosen to use Susie's name if it still brought them pain. The baby shows that all of the Salmons are turning toward a new life instead of grieving for the old one.

Interestingly, Ruth Connors chooses not to heal. Her ability to sense the places murders have been committed is virtually a curse, because (at least by the time the book ends) she has no way to make use of the information. However, Ruth has always chosen to live somewhat apart from happy, "normal" people, and she knows that her painful gift is important.

Grief

Grieving their unimaginable loss affects each member of the Salmon family—including Susie—to such an extent that it seems impossible any of them should survive it. Susie's loved ones must all learn that nothing they do—no act of will or change of occupation—will affect their grief. Grief has its own laws and takes its own time. All they can do is reacclimate themselves to their new reality.

Susie

For Susie, grief takes the form of longing: "What I found strange was how much I desired to know what I had not known on Earth," she says in Chapter 1, "I wanted to be allowed to grow up." Susie never manages to subjugate her grief over not having known love while she was alive. After all, she died at 14 and finds it challenging to "outgrow" her youthful need to experience passion. That emotion grips her so fiercely that at the end of the book, her wish to return to Earth is finally granted—after which she returns to heaven with a fuller acceptance of her fate.

Mr. Jack Salmon

For Mr. Salmon, grief takes the form of anger. He feels that he failed in his mission to protect his child and is enraged at what he believes to be the inertia of the police. For a time, his guilt and fury are so consuming that he neglects the needs of his other two children. When he realizes this error, he sometimes overcompensates. In Chapter 3, for example, he vows to "find Susie now inside his young son. Give that love to the living." However, this displacement does not lead to healing.

Mr. Abigail Salmon

For Mrs. Salmon, grief takes the form of disappearance. Susie's mother seems to vanish inside her sorrow. Her anguish is compounded by the fact that she has never felt particularly motherly; she did not enjoy being pregnant with Susie and feels trapped by the unplanned birth of Buckley. Feeling unfit for her role doesn't mean Mrs. Salmon doesn't grieve terribly; she is as unhappy as any mother could be. But her sorrow enhances her secret feeling that she was meant to live a different life. She draws away from Mr. Salmon and the children and finally leaves to live on the West Coast.

Lindsey Salmon

For Lindsey, grief takes the form of self-protection. Susie's younger sister, Lindsey, is fully conscious of how badly she misses Susie, but Lindsey has always been a perfectionist and something of a control freak: "She sat in her room ... and worked on hardening herself" (Chapter 2). Lindsey insists on returning to school as soon as possible, "looking into the eyes of only those people she could fight against." She wants to appear unbreakable, because if she were to show her grief, it might overwhelm her.

Buckley Salmon

For Buckley, grief takes the form of confusion. Buckley Salmon is only four when Susie dies, but he's not too young to understand the magnitude of the loss. Yet for days, no one in the Salmon family will tell him what has happened; they pretend that Susie is away on an extended sleepover with a friend. Buckley watches as his father sobs in Susie's room and his mother vanishes behind books and household routines. He is too young to express his thoughts, but his feeling that the world is a secure place has vanished: "He was beginning to understand: you were treated special, and later, something horrible would be told to you" (Chapter 12).

Changing Roles

Characters in The Lovely Bones constantly find themselves taking on new roles. The Salmons must fashion an entirely new family for themselves; Susie, who might be considered a heavenly orphan, must learn to live alone and away from Earth. Being brushed by Susie's departing soul brings Ruth the supernatural ability to discover female murder victims.

Many characters not only take on new roles but exchange roles with others. Mr. Harvey, who hunts for female victims to kill, is himself under constant threat of being discovered as others try to hunt him down. Both Mr. Salmon and Lindsay Salmon assume the role of hunter once they begin to suspect him. In a smaller way, Len Fenerman—who is, of course, hunting for Mr. Harvey—becomes a kind of prey for Mrs. Salmon, who uses him sexually in the hopes that he will make her forget her grief.

No one seems less maternal than Grandma Lynne until she is called upon to help her grandchildren. At that point, she switches roles with her daughter. Mrs. Salmon, who as a child felt neglected by Lynne, is now abandoning her own children. Sam and Hal both step in as father figures for Buckley; when Mrs. Salmon begins to withdraw from the family, Lindsey is called upon to become more of a mother figure to her little brother.

Most dramatic is the role exchange between Susie and Ruth Connors. When Susie dies, she mourns not having had the time to begin a relationship with Ray Singh. Ruth and Ray do their best to carry on a physical relationship, which Susie shares vicariously. Later, Susie and Ruth literally switch bodies. When Susie enters Ruth's body, she is able to make love with Ray. When Ruth's soul temporarily visits heaven, she learns how vital her search for murder victims' bodies has become for the souls in heaven who were murdered and whose bodies were never found.

Some characters in the novel assume new roles as a way of healing. Mrs. Salmon's flight from family life is undoubtedly destructive to her family, at least in the short run, and it doesn't seem to make her happier. But she needs to "put in the time" away, working in a nonmaternal role, in order to appreciate what she's left behind. Lindsey joins the boys' soccer team and finds that the intense exercise helps her. Buckley overcomes some of his anger by making a garden and learning to play drums. As Grandma Lynne observes, he needs something to hit. As an adult, Lindsey becomes a therapist, mirroring Franny's heavenly role as an "intake counselor" by bringing healing to living people.

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