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On December 6, 1973 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, Susie Salmon takes a shortcut home from her school. She is approached by a neighbor, George Harvey, a man in his mid-40s 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 her brutally and murders her, then dismembers her body. An elbow, the only part of Susie ever to be found, falls out of his bag as he returns home. He disposes of the remaining parts of the body by putting them in a safe and dropping it into a local sinkhole. Meanwhile, Susie's spirit flees toward her personal heaven.
The Salmon family is at first reluctant to accept that Susie has been killed, but then accepts this when Susie's hat and elbow are found. The police who talk to Harvey find him odd but see no reason to suspect him. Jack, Susie's father, becomes suspicious and later begins to obsess about Harvey. Susie's sister Lindsey comes to share these suspicions. Jack, consumed with guilt over not having been able to protect his daughter, remains on extended leave from work and increasingly isolates himself at home. Meanwhile Buckley, the youngest child, tries to make sense of all this as he starts school.
One day late in the summer a detective named Len Fenerman comes to tell the Salmons that the police have exhausted all leads and are dropping the investigation. That night in his study, Jack looks out the window and sees a flashlight in the cornfield. Believing it to be Harvey returning to destroy evidence, he runs out to confront him with a baseball bat. It turns out to be Susie's best friend, Clarissa, and her boyfriend Brian looking for a place to make out. Brian and Jack struggle, and Brians hits Jack with the bat. As a result he has to have knee replacement surgery. In the wake of this, his wife Abigail begins having an affair with Fenerman, who is a widower.
Still suspicious, Lindsey sneaks into Harvey's house and finds a drawing of the pit, but is forced to leave when Harvey returns prematurely. Sensing danger, Harvey leaves Norristown as soon as possible and becomes a drifter. A year later the police bulldoze the cornfield and turn up a soda bottle from the night of the murder with Harvey's and Susie's fingerprints, finally making him an official suspect. However, he remains at large. That fall, a hunter in Connecticut discovers the body of another one of Harvey's victims, and one of Susie's charms nearby. In 1981, a detective in Connecticut links the charm to Susie's murder and calls Fenerman. As they uncover further evidence, the police realize that Harvey is a serial killer who preys on young girls. At about the same time, Susie sees into his traumatic childhood, and develops a grudging pity for her killer.
The following winter Abigail leaves her husband, going to her father's old cabin in New Hampshire and then moving to California, taking a job at a winery. As a result, her mother, Grandma Lynn, moves into the Salmons' home to help her son-in-law care for Buckley and Lindsey.
Lindsey and her boyfriend Samuel Heckler become engaged, find an old house in the woods owned by a classmate's father, and decide to fix it up and live there. Sometime after the celebration, while arguing with Buckley, Jack suffers from a heart attack. The emergency prompts Abigail to return from California, but the reunion is tempered by Buckley's lingering bitterness at her for having abandoned him and his father.
Meanwhile, Harvey returns to Norristown, which has become more developed. He explores his old neighborhood and notices the school is being expanded into the cornfield where he murdered Susie. He drives by the sinkhole where Susie's body rests, and where Ruth Connors and Ray Singh are standing. Ruth, an old classmate of Susie's who had felt Susie's spirit go past her after her murder, senses the women Harvey has killed and is overcome. Susie, looking down from heaven, is also overwhelmed with emotion and the two girls exchange positions. Susie, her spirit now in Ruth's body, connects with Ray, who had a crush on Susie in school. Ray senses Susie's presence, and takes advantage of the fact he has Susie back with him for the time being. The two go to the back room in Hal Heckler's (the older brother of Lindsey's boyfriend Samuel) bike shop and they have sex. Afterward, Susie returns to heaven.
She moves on into the larger heaven, still watching earthbound events from time to time. She sees her sister's newborn baby girl, who is named Abigail Suzanne. One day she spies Harvey getting off a Greyhound bus at a diner in New Hampshire in early spring. Behind the diner he sees a young woman and attempts to speak to her, but she rebuffs him. Susie notices some large icicles hanging from the roof, and after the woman leaves, one falls and hits Harvey on the head, knocking him into a nearby ravine and ultimately killing him.
The novel ends with Susie showing us Lindsey's newborn daughter, then tracking away to a newer house where a man has finally found Susie's old charm bracelet. "This little girl's grown up by now," his wife says. "Almost. Not quite," Susie's narrative voice rejoins. "I wish you all a long and happy life."