The book beings with Susie Salmon (like the fish), a 14-year-old girl who is raped, murdered, and dismembered by a neighbor (I didn't mean this sentence to be basically word-for-word with wikipedia, but as I see whilst looking up some information, it is. Forgive me). So right off the bat, from chapter one, not only is it incredibly depressing, but you already know who the killer is. But the book isn't about a murder mystery. It's about how Susie's friends and family (and the police and killer) deal with the loss. And Susie narrates it all from her own Heaven, able to see all and hear all (including everybody's thoughts and emotions).
There really isn't a plot; most literary novels don't have much of one. Like I said, it's all about the characters. And sometimes that works out well. Who doesn't like a bit of character development? But sometimes... you just need a good plot, too, you know? And you really don't get it here.
All of the interesting bits--the inter-workings of Heaven, or the psychological nature of a killer--are horribly glanced over. There are bits and pieces here and there, but not nearly enough. The book is more focused on how much of a drunk the grandmother is, how annoying the mother is, how tragic the father is, how sexy Ray Singh is, or how strange Ruth is.
Ray was the almost-boyfriend, the guy Susie would have had had she not been killed. Ruth is the girl that Susie passes by as she's going to Heaven, giving her a strange connection to the "other world." Jack Salmon, the father, is a tragic character--wanting to be the hero, but just coming off as a bit deranged and depressed. The detective tries to be a hero, but gets mixed in with the worst character storyline of the book: Abigail, the mother. She's such a horrible character/person that I hated having to read any scene she was involved with. Maybe that's just a sign of good writing... that is, if that was the author's intent.
I haven't even mentioned the brother, Buckley, or the sister, Lindsey. The younger version of Buckley is better (though in no real way important). The older Buckley is angry and, honestly, annoying. Ironically, Lindsey is the opposite. When Susie first dies, the younger version of Lindsey is annoying, though as she gets older, she gets more bearable. And, amazingly, Lindsey stays with her first ever boyfriend (from the age of 13) for the rest of her life.
Honestly, the best characters, besides Jack, were Grandma Lynn, Ruth, and Ruana Singh (Ray's mother). Grandma Lynn was a wise old woman who knew how to keep things spritely and alive in an otherwise depressing setting. Ruana was just a mysterious woman (perhaps too mysterious); though she's mostly a static character, she is still interesting due to the intrigue surrounding her. And, of course, Ruth. Had this been any other genre, Ruth would have been one of if not the primary character(s). She's like the strange ghost hunter/psychic connection to the spirit realm who is out to find out what happened to Susie.
And although Susie is in everybody's head for the entire book, she barely touches on what makes her killer tick. There is only one real chapter where we learn a bit of what makes Mr. Harvey tick, but besides that, it's just little things here and there (like the dollhouses) that add to his creepiness. And while I did really appreciate the foreshadowing earlier in the book (which I of course only picked up on in 20/20 hindsight), Mr. Harvey's comeuppance at the end is less than half a page of lame summarizing, making the whole thing almost not even worth it.
Tonally, the book is strange. For the majority of the book, there's a weird mix of "depressing" and "uplifting," though leaning more toward "depressing." But then, in the last 50 pages or so, it suddenly shifts to "happily ever after" mode, which is a total shift from everything that had been happening. And like a lot of literary novels, because there is such little plot, it's one of those stories that just kind of... ends. There really isn't a "beginning-middle-end" formula to it, no "3 Acts."
I don't have completely negative things to say, however (I did, for all intents and purposes, like the book). What literary novels do is, because they have no plot, they have to make up for with pretty writing. The words must flow elegantly and make you feel swept away by the linguistics of it all (not to mention have some damn fine characters to keep your attention). And, for the most part, the novel was written very well. There are some dull stretches here and there, but it did manage to keep me reading... and as I'm not a huge fan of the literary genre (there are only a few literary books I've ever finished), this book deserves some giant socks, because that's a big feat (ba dum psh).
I know this review might seem negative, but it's not a bad book. It's just a difficult one. And on top of the subject matter, I find it really hard to get through literary novels to begin with, as they're most times overly depressing with unlikable characters going through difficult situations with almost no plot whatsoever for hundreds of pages. But I did like it (I can't say 'enjoy'... as this is one of those books that you can't really 'enjoy' as much as 'appreciate'). I do think, however, that I will like the movie a lot more. At least from the previews, it seems to focus on certain aspects from the book that will keep the audience more engaged. Not to mention I've heard it really doesn't do much of a time-jump like the book did, and you know it'll Hollywood-ize the ending to make it more dramatic (unless Jackson wants to go the 'million endings with no dramatics' route again). So if you're a fan of depressing (or literary novels), you'll probably like this one. But if you hate depressing books or books with little plot, you should probably stay away. It's a good book, but it's not for everyone.
(P.S. I didn't even mention the craziest part of the book--the possession scene followed by a bunch of sex instead of doing anything, you know, important... and maybe less creepy. But maybe that's just me).