Emily Gold and Christopher Harte were born, months apart, to parents who lived in adjacent houses and mothers who were best friends. Growing up, they were two halves of a whole, partners in crime, and as close as any two humans could possibly be. As they moved into the maze of their teenage years, it was only natural that Chris and Em take the next step and become a couple. After all, it's like they were made for each other, so what could be more natural or perfect?
That perfection shatters on an autumn evening when both sets of parents are called with horrifying news: they must come to the hospital immediately; there has been a shooting involving Chris and Emily. The Hartes and the Golds race to the emergency room, but it's too late for Em, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Christopher has a scalp laceration and stitches. In the ensuing hours, tragic details will emerge: Emily and Chris went to the local park, where Chris operated the carousel in the summer, to fulfill a suicide pact. The gun that killed Emily was Dr. James Harte's. Chris fainted after Em's shot and before he could follow through.
It's not that simple. When Chris is charged with Emily's murder, an already tragic situation becomes catastrophic. What really happened that night? Melanie Gold becomes so consumed by bitterness, blame and rage that she turns on everyone, alienating not only her best friend, Gus Harte, but also her own husband Michael. James Harte withdraws into himself and avoids his wife. Chris's younger sister, Kate, is all but forgotten (the Christmas morning scene is downright painful). In the midst of all of this, defense attorney Jordan McAfee is trying to build a case that will let Christopher off the hook while asking his client to just sit down and shut up; meanwhile, Christopher needs to face the truth of his relationship with Emily, and ask himself how much she really loved him. The answer is devastating.
Picoult uses a combination of legal and emotional plotlines to frame her most successful works, and I would argue that The Pact is in her top three, along with My Sister's Keeper and Handle with Care. While moving through the present day, focusing mostly on Chris but keeping a good handle on the supporting characters, Picoult intersperses the details of Chris and Em's years together, from the day Emily was born and Chris shared her hospital bassinet, up until the night that she died and left Chris behind. In the meantime, everyone tries to put together the pieces of what, exactly, happened. Too many variables don't add up - the trajectory of the bullet, Emily's demeanor, her future prospects as a very talented artist - to label her death a suicide; however, if Chris loves Em as much as he, and everyone else, claims, he could never have killed her, because he doesn't want to live without her. Slowly, secrets are rescued from their hidden corners and pockets, and the answers eventually come together in a moving scene that has Christopher taking the stand in his own defense. The outcome and the answers are completely unbelievable, but they fit the novel to perfection. There is no happy ending, and the truth hurts everyone, but it's fitting. Life isn't always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it's a cold marble headstone and regret.