This book is so poignantly sad, it’s hard to read. The twelve year old narrator gets raped and killed in the book’s opening chapter and goes to heaven. Heaven’s okay, she tells us, but it takes getting used to. The remainder of the book is spent with her keeping an eye on her loved ones back home -- seeing how Mom and Dad deal with their grief, watching her younger sister grow up, seeing whatever happened to the first and only boy she ever kissed, following her murderer around. The story lacks any new age edges that would make it schmaltzy, and while the narrator remains attached to her family, she sees her connection to them lessen over the ten or so years during which this story takes place. If you’re at all sentimental -- as I am -- you’ll cry when her dog joins her in heaven, or when she gets to briefly appear before her first crush in an awkward and confusing moment.
Sebold’s vision of heaven -- which we don’t see much of, but the glimpses are memorable -- is a place where you have to know why you want something before you can have it. The narrator’s heaven looks a lot like a high school because that is the place that she believed that she would be popular and happy. The novel in many ways is about letting go. The narrator learns to let go of her family, the family learns to let go of her memory, many different people in the story learn to let go of whatever it is that’s been in their way.