The novel tells the story of what happens to one family after their fourteen-year-old daughter is raped and murdered, and it's told in the person of the dead girl, Susie, narrating from heaven. And I know that sounds melodramatic and insipid and the dark side of It's a Wonderful Life, all at the same time. But as executed the book is none of those things. It's a complex and affecting story of parental love and tragedy, of family relationships and the slow disintegration that sometimes occurs after a traumatic event, as well as the abiding love that remains. The characters are beautifully drawn and believable and they show real growth and real flaws. The novel is not sentimental but it's also not detached. It feels like reading the real emotions of real people. The parents make mistakes, including the all too common one of focusing their attention on the dead to the neglect of the living. The other children in the family ache and grow and develop and rebel in moving, realistic, never maudlin ways.
I think the appeal of the book for kids is somewhat different from its appeal to adults. I related to the book as a parent, wanting to protect my kids, knowing I can't always. And I related to the book as someone who grew up in a family over-focused on one child's tragic event to the detriment of the other children. I related to the interplay in the town, thought of families I knew growing up who became notorious for some awful thing that had happened to them and thought about how little I knew about who they really were beyond the one horrible event. All of that made the book come alive to me, and the device of it being told posthumously by the dead girl facilitated all of that.
The device does something else for kids, though, I think. Because Susie is forever 14, she remains easy for the children reading the book to relate to, even as all the other characters grow and develop. And as she sits in heaven watching her siblings and other kids grow up, I think the author captures a poignancy that kids at this age often feel, a sense that the world is rushing by while they are standing still. Susie will never be an adult, never go to college, never fall in love and have sex. I think a lot of 14-year-olds feel like that, even as they know it isn't true for them. For adults reading this lovely novel, I think the focus will be on the family and an the interrelationships. For kids of Susie's age, I think the focus is Susie herself.