The novel begins with an anecdote, used as an epigraph, in which Susie recalls her father amusing her as a child by shaking a snow globe with a small penguin inside all by himself. When she worries about the penguin, he says, "Don't worry, Susie. He's got a nice life. He's trapped inside a perfect world." In the opening sentences, Susie introduces herself to us and takes us to the date of her death, December 6, 1973, "before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons and in the daily mail ... when people believed things like that didn't happen." At dusk, with a light snow falling, she takes a shortcut back home across a small cornfield from her junior high school to her home in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. When she stops to taste a snowflake, she is accosted by a neighbor, George Harvey, a man in his mid-30s who lives alone and builds dollhouses for a living. He persuades her to enter an underground den he has recently built nearby. Once she enters, he rapes and strangles her, cutting her body into parts to make it easier to carry, and then collapses the den. An elbow, the only part of Susie ever to be found, falls out of his bag as he returns home. Susie tells us later that she missed all this as her spirit was fleeing toward heaven. On the way there, she reaches out and brushes Ruth Connors, a classmate who is walking near the school while Susie is being killed. Ruth dreams about the incident that night, and will become increasingly fascinated with not just Susie, but murdered women as a whole, over the next few years. Over this time, she also becomes close friends with Ray Singh, a British immigrant of Indian descent who had given Susie her first kiss a few days before her death. She arrives in heaven to at first find it boring and taking the form of a high school with "orange and turquoise blocks" that she never got to go to, saying "life here is a perpetual yesterday." She and a fellow teen girl, Holly, are finally approached by a friendly older woman named Franny, who, after giving the two girls some lime Kool-Aid, describes herself as their intake counselor. She explains that anything they desire can be theirs if they follow the paths that wind and twist through the woods and wish for it. Following this advice, Susie and Holly find their way to a duplex where they live, a gazebo from which they often follow events on Earth, and an ice cream stand where they can get peppermint-stick ice cream all year long. At the high school, there are no teachers and they only have to attend one class each, art class for Suzie and jazz band for Holly. "The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue." They also meet other inhabitants of what they realize is "their" heaven; one of which is an older woman, a past neighbor of the Salmons who was the only dead body Susie had ever seen during her life. At night Holly and the woman play duets on violin and saxophone which attract many dogs, consoling Susie, who misses her own dog Holiday. On Earth, Mr. Harvey disposes of the remaining parts of Susie's body by putting them in a safe and paying someone to drop it in a sinkhole. He successfully destroys most other evidence save a charm bracelet, which he tosses in an unfilled pond in an office park under construction. The Salmon family is at first reluctant to accept the police conclusion that Susie has been killed, but then accedes to it when Susie's hat and elbow are found. The police who talk to Mr. Harvey find him odd but see no reason to suspect him; Jack, Susie's father, even goes over to his house and builds a tent with him. He becomes suspicious of him and later comes to annoy the police with his constant tips about Harvey. Susie's sister Lindsey, considered by both her family and the school to be the smarter of the two girls in her family, later comes to share those suspicions. Jack, consumed with guilt over not...
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