The novel's title stems from a line toward the end of the novel, in which Susie ponders her friends' and family's newfound strength after her death:
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events my death brought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life.
On December 6, 1973, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, Susie Salmon takes her usual shortcut home from her school through a cornfield. George Harvey, a man in his mid-40s who lives alone and builds dollhouses for a living, persuades her to enter an underground den he has recently dug in the field. Once she has entered, he rapes and kills her, dismembering her body, whose parts he puts in a safe and dumps in a sinkhole. Susie's spirit flees toward her personal heaven.
The Salmon family at first refuses to accept that Susie is dead, until Susie's elbow is found by a neighbor's dog. The police talk to Harvey, finding him odd but seeing no reason to suspect him. Susie's father Jack, on extended leave from work, begins to suspect Harvey, a sentiment his surviving daughter Lindsey comes to share.
One day the detective assigned to the case, Len Fenerman, tells 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. In the ensuing struggle struggle Brian hits Jack with the bat, requiring that...