Sebold's novel was a surprise success when it was first published, mainly because it was written by a young author known only for one other book. In addition, the plot and narrative device are unusual and unconventional. It would have been considered a success by Little, Brown and Company had it sold 20,000 copies, but it ultimately sold over a million and remained on the New York Times hardback bestseller list for over a year. Some of that could have been attributed to adroit marketing. Prior to its June publication, an excerpt was run in Seventeen. Shortly afterwards, ABC's Good Morning America chose it for its book club. The book became a popular summer read and a runaway success, with much of its sales subsequently attributed to word of mouth.
Critics also helped the novel's success by being generally positive, many noting that the story had more promise than the idea of a brutally murdered teenage girl going to heaven and following her family and friends as they get on with their lives would have suggested. "This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance", wrote Katherine Bouton in The New York Times Book Review.
The novel also sold well in other English-speaking countries, though reviews were not as glowing. While admitting the novel "has its very fine moments", The Guardian's Ali Smith ultimately said, "The Lovely Bones is so keen in the end to comfort us and make safe its world that, however well-meaning, it avoids its own ramifications". Her Observer colleague Philip Hensher was more blunt, conceding that the novel was "very readable" but "ultimately it seems like a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment and whimsy".
Depiction of Heaven
The novel portrays heaven as a very personal thing; each dead person existing in their own individualized version of heaven, sometimes sharing similar elements with other individuals, but not able to follow into the dissimilar areas of another person's heaven. Because Susie's character is narrating the story from her own personal heaven, there are some questions over the depiction of the afterlife.
Some readers with a Fundamentalist Christian perspective faulted Susie's heaven for being utterly devoid of any apparent religious aspect. "It's a very God-free heaven, with no suggestion that anyone has been judged, or found wanting," Philip Hensher stated in The Observer.
Several faiths including Swedenborgianism and Spiritualism, believing that the soul continues to learn and mature after death, subscribe to the idea of the afterlife being organized into stages through which souls progress. Theosophical readers speculate on a "heaven world" where the newly dead orient themselves in an illusion of their perfect earthly desires before continuing on to the real Heaven as Susie does.
Sebold, who was raised Episcopalian, intended the heaven to be simplistic in design: "To me, the idea of heaven would give you certain pleasures, certain joys — but it's very important to have an intellectual understanding of why you want those things. It's also about discovery, and being able to come to the conclusions that elude you in life. So it's from the most simplistic things — Susie wants a duplex — to larger things, like being able to understand why her mother was always slightly distant from her."
Furthermore, Sebold has stated that the book is not intended to be religious, "but if people want to take things and interpret them, then I can't do anything about that. It is a book that has faith and hope and giant universal themes in it, but it's not meant to be, 'This is the way you should look at the afterlife'".