Romeo and Juliet is often referred to as a tale of undying, forever love. The Pact is a story about realistic love and what happens when teenagers are mesmerized by the romantic notion of undying love.
Don't let that cheesy cover fool you. Jodi Picoult is excellent at writing about terrible things happening to good people, who then have to make tough choices. Her stories do not have a finger-wagging morality about them but instead, they are introspective: she plants thoughts that hopefully will make us readers understand why someone would make a completely opposite choice from ours, even if we do not agree at all with that choice. The stories teach empathy.
The Pact begins with a death and one botched-up death: one of the teenagers in this young lovers' suicide pact actually survives to the relief and subsequent horror of the four parents, who had lived as neighbors and watched their kids grow together and eventually fall in love.
Saying that this is a modern day Romeo and Juliet would be too cliched, but I can't help it! This time, though, readers are left to deal with the aftermath of such a suicide pact when people frantically look for anyone to blame. Surely the blame lies in the finger that pulled the trigger? Friends? Society? The parents who had been oblivious to any problems their kids may have?
The story begins on the evening of the death, and moves forward in real time in chapters titled "Now" to look into the parents' survival strategies and the lies they tell themselves, and to whether this was not a suicide but a cold-blooded murder. "Now" is intermingled with chapters titled "Then," which begin from the day the teenagers' parents became neighbors. The stories move forward until the final day in court in present time, where the last "Then" chapter takes the place of the accused's turn at the witness stand, recounting the day of the death.
It was fascinating to read about how these characters broke down and what lengths they went to in order to either protect a mythology about their family or to attempt to live a normal life again. Some of it is absolutely horrific, and I wound up hating some of the characters for being so unreasonable and calculatingly evil. But I also understood why they ended up that way.
The ending is quite genius in its unsettling nature. I actually was surprised at how I did not foresee the ending (and I'm not referring to the decision at the trial--anyone has a 50/50 chance of guessing it right). The final pages felt like cruelty coming from the hands of the author who so lovingly wrote about the protagonists, but it made so much sense and I would not have wanted any other ending. Dangit, Picoult was able to make me empathize even with her decision to write the story the way she did! See how good she is?