Part I: The Boy Next Door begins with two quotes. The first is by Christopher Marlowe, a famed Elizabethan playwright, about love. The second is by another, lesser-known playwright, Thomas Otway and is about "eternal misery" (p.2).
Now: November 1997
The story begins in 1997 at the moment Emily is shot. However, the story quickly jumps away to a normal scene of two adult couples at a Chinese restaurant. The couples are the Hartes and the Golds, next-door neighbors who have a tradition of going out to this particular restaurant together. Melanie Gold and James Harte are the first to arrive and they make small talk until Michael Gold and finally Gus Harte arrive. Gus Harte is in a hurry because of her job as a "professional waiter" (p.5) - someone who waits for things so other people don't have to. After rushing in, she orders the group the usual food and then describes how a clerk at the DMV had a heart attack that afternoon. Gus moves on to telling about a student who hired her to sit in detention and how she had to change a flat tire by herself later in the day, but Melanie is oddly fixated on the question of what happened to the clerk. Gus says that he "went off in an ambulance" (p.6) and then changes the subject to praise Emily, Melanie and Michael's child, whose artwork is on display at the State building. They talk a bit more about Gus's next appointment, camping out all night to wait for Metallica tickets, and about cataract surgery which James says he cannot perform for Melanie because she is so close to family, and then the group opens their fortune cookies. Michael's is about love, James's is about youth, and Gus's comes without a fortune.
The narrator zooms out to describe their town, Bainbridge, New Hampshire, and specifically the way that the Harte and Gold properties fit together side by side. The couples drive home and the reader follows Michael and Melanie as they arrive at their house and are greeted by their dogs. They talk about the fact that their daughter isn't home, but they aren't worried by this as it is only eight o'clock. The story skips to three o'clock the morning, when James Harte is woken by a call from a police officer telling him that his son has been injured and he must come to the hospital right away. He asks if there was a car accident and is told that there was not. He dresses quickly, hops into the car, and calls Gus from his car phone. We then see Melanie and Michael getting dressed after a similar call. They too get in the car quickly and head to the hospital. The last of the four parents, Gus, is in line for tickets next to a bunch of punk teenagers groping one another. She is comparing these teens to her son Chris when she gets a message on her beeper and sees that it's from James. She calls him from a pay phone and moments later is running toward the hospital.
Next we see Chris, who is being examined by doctors talking about his heart rate and "visible cranium" (p.13). When he sees his father and Emily's parents, he rips the IV out of his arm and screams silently to them. James Harte uses his status as a doctor to get through the crowd and he is able to accompany Chris to the Radiology department. As he follows the stretcher, Mr. and Mrs. Gold are asked to go with another doctor. The doctor takes them to a group of chairs and tells them that their daughter was pronounced dead on arrival with a gunshot wound to the head. The doctor asks one of them to identify the body and answers a few of their shocked questions: she was with Chris, but he is not able to say who shot her. Michael identifies her body, feeling her forehead which is still warm and then seeing the hole above her right ear which causes him to run out of the room and retch in the hallway. Gus Harte arrives at the hospital and must locate James and Chris. First, she runs into Melanie who tells her that Emily is dead.
Gus and James sit together waiting for Chris to be finished with a series of tests. James reveals that he didn't tell Chris that Emily is dead. Gus says that she assumes they were shot at while driving through a bad neighborhood. Chris is wheeled back into the room with his head wrapped in bandages and when Gus hugs her son he starts to sob. As Gus holds her son and tries not to cry in front of her stoic husband, Detective-Sergeant Marrone enters the room. She asks Gus a few questions, and then asks to see Chris, asserting for the first time that he may have shot her.
Then: Fall 1979
The story shifts back almost 20 years, to the day Melanie and Michael moved into their house next to the Hartes. Along with a welcome note, The Hartes have left the couple banana bread, but Melanie cannot try any; pregnant with Emily, she is constantly nauseous. Looking at the card, they come to believe the couple next door is gay, since their names are James and Gus. However, when Melanie calls to thank them, it is revealed that they are indeed a heterosexual couple: Gus is short for Augusta. Gus tells Melanie that she'd like to come over since she's going stir crazy at home and moments later she arrives, revealing that she too is pregnant.
Melanie gets a job at Bainbridge Public Library. She had worked as a librarian before, and even met her husband Michael when he came in with a veterinary question. However, Bainbridge Library, though beautiful , does not draw many academically-minded people. The exception is Gus Harte, who quickly reads through a slew of famous titles as Melanie looks on. Melanie is curious as to where her literary appetite is from, and one day Gus tells her: she is looking for a name for her baby. Melanie and Gus quickly become "seventh-grade friends" (p.24), calling each other constantly, casually frequenting one another's houses, and getting one another gifts. Michael and James meet through the women and talk awkwardly, disagreeing most about the beauty of hunting.
Chris is born in the winter; ironically, Gus's water breaks while she is on a walk, just as her husband has warned it might. As Melanie finishes out her pregnancy, she dreams of Michael not being present for Emily's birth. This in fact does come to pass; Melanie goes into labor while Michael is out on a veterinary call and it is Gus who takes Melanie to the hospital and helps her through the delivery. Michael arrives after the delivery has already ended and James joins the three in the delivery room with a bottle of champagne. As they celebrate, Gus places sleeping baby Chris in the bassinet with Emily and they hold hands for the first time.
Now: November 1997
Detective-Sergeant Anne-Marie Marrone worked ten years in Washington, D.C. before moving to Bainbridge, New Hampshire, but she sometimes feels that the problems are even more disturbing in such a small town. She argues with Gus Harte and gets past her to interview Chris. James also tries to prevent her from speaking to Chris, saying that he is not in a suitable condition. However, she persists in questioning Chris; she does not tell him that Emily is dead to start off, but she gets out of them that they had been drinking and that Chris had brought his father's gun. When he asks outright, she tells him that Emily is dead and as Chris begins to sob again the detective hugs him. When he has calmed down, the detective asks if they had a fight and Chris reveals that they had planned to kill themselves together. Chris explains briefly, but Gus quickly ends the conversation, sending Detective Marrone on her way. At the Gold house, Michael puts Melanie to sleep with a Valium and then he goes into Emily's room. He soaks in the smell of her things, looks around at what is left unfinished, and thinks about his last conversation with her, trying to draw meaning from everything. Needing something to occupy his mind, he flees to check on an injured horse.
Chris wakes up feeling terrible and thinking of Emily. His father, however, tries to make normal conversation with him. Chris hides his face in a pillow and tells his family to go away. Gus and James leave him alone and James tells Gus that he is going to work; Gus gets mad at him for this but he tells her they all need to try to get on with their lives. Meanwhile, Melanie and Michael visit the funeral home to make preparations such as buying a coffin and arranging the funeral and reception; Melanie is cynical throughout the process, especially due to the extreme cost. Melanie becomes distressed when she sees the clothes Michael has brought for her daughter to be buried in: he has forgotten the bra and slip, and the clothes are inappropriate for the season and Emily's size. Melanie runs out of the room and goes home to find more clothes. Anne-Marie Marrone is waiting at their home to speak with them. Michael leads her inside and she tells them that Emily's death is being treated as a homicide. Michael invites the detective to take evidence from the house but stands up for Chris, saying outright "He didn't murder my daughter" (p.42). They talk a little more about getting the autopsy report and then Anne-Marie goes on her way. When Michael turns his attention back to his wife, he sees that she has been affected greatly by the suggestion of homicide: "Her teeth sinking into it, unforgiving" (p.43).
While James stays at the hospital, waiting to check Chris out of the psychiatric ward where he has been held for a few days, Gus heads to the Gold house to talk to Melanie. She lets herself in and finds Melanie in the bathroom, just sitting lost in thought. They talk about the funeral and how surprised they both are about what happened. Gus tries to help Melanie choose something for Emily to wear when she is buried, but when Gus suggests that Chris could help them make the decision, Melanie reveals that she doesn't trust Chris anymore.
Then: Summer 1984
Gus is driving with Chris in the back seat helping her take care of his new baby sister. Suddenly, a man knocks on the window and points a gun at her, and she must find a way to get both of her children out of the car quickly. She is able to save the baby but the man drives away with Chris in the car. She wakes from this terrifying dream and suggests to her husband that she might need to see a psychiatrist about the dreams she's been having.
The story skips ahead to Gus and Melanie watching their young children, Chris and Emily, play in the water during a particularly hot summer. Gus is indeed pregnant again and she and Melanie laugh as they watch the children play, interpreting their childish actions sexually and finding it humorous when they ask about their differing anatomy.
Skipping again, the story comes to focus on Charlie, James's hunting dog, who has grown old and sick. Michael, as the resident veterinarian, had been trying to keep him healthy, but the dog's health continues to deteriorate, drinking tons of water and then peeing inside the house. One night, the two couples get together for a dinner party, but Charlie gets sick right in the middle of it, vomiting and urinating on the carpet. The dinner party comes to an abrupt end, and Gus and Michael agree that "it may be time" (p.52). Gus has the carjacker dream again, but this time finds herself holding not a baby but Charlie, the dog, in her arms as the car drives away with Chris. In the morning, James rises early and then takes Charlie out hunting. He brings a gun with him that he thinks he "was saving for Chris, when he got old enough to hunt squirrels and rabbits" (p.53) and as the dog looks for something in the sky, he shoots him in the back of the head. When he comes home, he tells Gus what he has done. At first she does not understand, and then she gets extremely upset. Gus goes to Melanie's house and they discuss the issue, talking about whether it was "malicious" (p.55) and whether it would be lying to tell Chris simply that Charlie died and feels better now. Gus talks about Charlie with Chris and then, impulsively, packs up some things and takes him to stay at the Golds's house for a while.
Gus and Chris stay in the Gold's guest room for multiple days; Gus feels somewhat uncomfortable with the arrangement so she tries to make herself scarce, especially at night. She turns James away when he tries to call or come over to talk to her, though one night she calls him and asks about where the dog is buried, supposedly so that she can tell Chris. As she hangs up on her husband, Michael comes into the kitchen and they talk somewhat intimately, him comforting her by saying that Charlie died with someone he loved. The next day, Gus and Melanie take Chris and Emily to the pond. While the mothers are still setting up on the shore, they hear a commotion and then see the lifeguard jump into the water and pull out Chris. The lifeguard starts to give him mouth-to-mouth and Chris stirs and then throws up. Gus and Melanie rush over and the lifeguard tells them that Emily fell in the water and when Chris tried to save her, he landed somewhere he couldn't stand or swim. When Chris gets back to his mother, he tells her that he saw Charlie. That afternoon, Gus moves herself and Chris back into their home. The chapter ends with Gus having her nightmare again, but this time instead of the carjacker getting away with Chris, James saves him.
Now: November 1997
James announces that he is hiring a lawyer for Chris. Gus and Chris's sister Kate are both incredulous, saying this makes it look like they believe he is guilty. Gus has a flashback to the first time she smelled Chris's breath and it didn't smell like a baby's. The scene switches to Kate visiting Chris at the hospital. She doesn't know what to say to him but eventually even admitting that there are things she is and isn't supposed to say to him is a humorous comfort to them both. She tells him that Emily's funeral is on Monday, though she knows she really isn't supposed to tell him this. On Monday, Gus and James come to Chris's room already dressed for the funeral, and they find him dressed as well. However, they tell him that he can't go, and when he tries to get out he has to be restrained and drugged by nurses.
After the funeral, Melanie and Michael have set up the Jewish mourning ritual of shiva. Melanie goes straight upstairs to take a Valium and sleep while Michael stays down to greet the visitors. When one of Emily's friends gives her condolences to him, he forgets himself for a moment and pulls her hand to his face, causing her to leap back in alarm. Following this encounter, he thanks everyone for coming and then leaves his own home. In the hospital, Chris wakes up from the drugs given to him before Emily's funeral to keep him from trying to leave. A nurse tells him that he has a visitor and he is surprised to find it is Michael, Emily's father. Michael tries to get Chris to tell him what happened the night of Emily's death, but all he will say is "I don't know" (p.67).
Anne-Marie, alone in her office, looks over Emily's autopsy report. The autopsy report shows all the facts the reader knows so far: her age, the time, and the nature of her injury by gun wound to the head. Facts are given about the brain regions affected and the type of bullet and gun, and Anne-Marie returns to these details to try to figure out how one would need to hold a gun to inflect these wounds on themself. Then, some new details are revealed. A bruise on her wrist and flakes of skin beneath her fingernails show potential signs of struggle. The section ends with Anne-Marie finding one further surprise, but instead of revealing this to the reader she simply picks up the phone. Anne-Marie calls Melanie Gold and sets up a meeting. At their house, she goes over the autopsy report with them. She tells them that she believes Emily's death may not have been a suicide which Melanie sees as a sort of absolution. The detective says that there is enough evidence pointing to murder that the State will be taking the case to a grand jury, and that the Golds may be as involved as they like. In front of the detective, the Golds argue about whether or not Chris could have killed Emily. The detective challenges them as to whether they really know either Emily or Chris well enough to point fingers in the case and then informs them that Emily was pregnant. In bed that night, Melanie and Michael discuss Emily, Chris, and the baby and argue again, causing Melanie to go sleep somewhere else. In the Harte household, James rises early on Tuesday morning and sets out to the woods around their property to do a task he had been putting off: nailing up safety signs for hunting. Instead of just putting a few, James nails up signs on every tree as if that will somehow protect his family.
Picoult begins each chapter with a set of two quotes. Like the cover, title, and introduction of a book, beginning a book or parts of a book with a quote can establish themes that will be found in the book or book section and demonstrate how the plot and characters of this work build upon prior works. Part I begins with two quotes. The first is, "Who ever loved that loved not at first sight" (p.2) by playwright Christopher Marlow, alluding to the length and intensity of Chris and Emily's relationship. The second is, "Let us embrace, and from this very moment vow an eternal misery together" (p.2), a quotation from Thomas Otway, which builds upon the prior quote to foreshadows the dark tone of the novel, warning of a tragedy that stems precisely from the closeness of Chris and Emily's relationship.
The Pact begins with a single paragraph describing the moment of Emily's death. This is a moment that will take the rest of the novel to explain, suspense building throughout about what exactly happened. This scene is used to juxtapose the happy scene that follows of Chris and Emily's parents having dinner and talking about their perfect children, and at the point of this scene, no names are even used to identify the characters or make clear that they are the same children discussed by the parents. Importantly, this scene does not give away what happened; it reveals neither who was injured, by what, or by the fault of whom. Picoult simply writes, "And then there was a shot" (p.3). Piecing together the questions unanswered in this passage is the painstaking job of both the readers and the jury assigned to Chris's trial as the story progresses.
The story proper begins with a group of two adult couples, not yet introducing the true protagonist(s) of the story for quite a while. Instead, the world of the story and importance of family is first established. The adult couples are the parents of Chris and Emily, and we see their children through their eyes and their high expectations. They discuss their children's successes, particularly Emily's success in art; these high expectations are later what the reader finds to be one reason both Emily and Chris felt they couldn't go to their parents regarding Emily's pregnancy and depression.
Furthermore, this dinner also establishes the importance of societal roles. The profession of each adult is revealed, and these professions help the reader to define the characters and their relationships to one another. For example, Gus's creative and passionate nature is revealed through her job as a "professional waiter" (p.5) and contrasted with James, a surgeon, a job typically seen as serious and masculine, even more so than other jobs in medicine. These contrasts will later be brought into stronger relief in their respective responses to Emily's death and Chris's incarceration. The roles within the four-person friendship will also be shaken badly by these events, so it is important that the group's normal state is established in this scene.
Later in this section of the book, Picoult introduces the question of whether there are more and less moral ways to kill someone or let them die. This is a crucial question in the book, as it matters to Chris's trial and to the way his family and friends perceive him whether Emily's death was a suicide, a homicide, or some kind of assisted suicide that he helped her embark upon because of her emotional pain. Picoult introduces and parallels this question through a story about Charlie, the Harte's dog who James shoots because of his age and illness. Though Gus had planned on having the dog put down soon, she is shocked and greatly upset that James tricked Charlie and killed him in such a violent manner. On the other hand, James sees no difference and even argues that Charlie was able to die on more natural terms outside of the veterinary office.