The Pact (by Jodi Picoult)

Jodi Picoult’s books always seem to be something of an emotional roller-coaster. And although I’d had this one on my shelves for a while - I was startled to find it was nearly seven years - I couldn’t quite bring myself to read this one, as the subject matter seemed so disturbing.

But I finally started reading ‘The Pact’ on Saturday, and - as often happens with this author - found it almost impossible to put down, particularly in the final third which I finished almost in one sitting. The story begins with a tragedy; two teenagers, brought up in good, two-parent homes with plenty of money, apparently have a pact to kill themselves. And we meet them - or one of them - in hospital, where one needs a lot of stitches and the other does not survive after a shot wound.

Their parents, we soon discover, are extremely close friends and neighbours. Chris and Emily were born six months apart, and grew up almost as brother and sister, sharing secrets, dares and danger. Their parents assume that eventually they’ll fall in love and get married, and indeed they start dating in their early teens. We learn this because the book is cleverly written, with dated chapters detailing ‘now’ - the story, as it happens, after the shooting incident - and ‘then’, going back initially to the time when their parents first met, and their two mothers found that they were kindred spirits.

We then skip forward over the years to see Chris and Emily’s unfolding relationship, which isn’t quite as idyllic and perfect as their parents assume, but nonetheless runs extremely deep. This runs alongside the ‘now’ scenario, with devastated, grieving parents, and then Chris’s arrest, presumed guilty of killing his girlfriend. His scenes in jail awaiting his trial are, apparently, based on reality; the author did her research extremely well.

The first third of the book is mostly about Chris, the second third about Emily, and the final third is the scene in the courtroom where, gradually, the truth unfolds despite the fact that neither of the attorneys concerned really wants to talk about truth. It’s a worrying part of the US legal system, apparently, that each side tries to make up a better story than the other, and it’s almost irrelevant whether the defendant is guilty or not. However the truth does eventually come to light. I was pleased that I had guessed what would eventually transpire, based partly on previous books I had read by this author, and partly on her excellent characterisation of the two main protagonists.

But it’s a draining book. I felt shattered by the time I reached the end, not so much feeling the pain of the parents as of Chris himself, the struggles he had to go through; the incident that will stay with him for the rest of his life; the knowledge that things could have been so very different..

It’s a moving exploration of the relationship between parents and teens, although I found the parents all a bit shadowy, particularly the two fathers (one a doctor, the other a vet). It raises a lot of questions about parental expectations, in even the happiest of families; of whether it’s healthy for extremely close friends to fall in love; of the way that people are usually a mixture of good and bad, with mixed motives, and how even in what seems to be a clear-cut case, there’s a great deal of room for doubt.

It’s a long book, nearly 500 pages, but I read it in two days. I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it, exactly; but it’s very powerful, thought-provoking in many respects, brilliantly written, and one which I would recommend to all parents and teachers. It’s potentially traumatic, so approach with caution. I don’t know if I’ll want to read it again, certainly not for several years, but I’m very glad that I did, finally, take it off my shelves and delve into it.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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