Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult – Book Review

It didn’t occur to me until later, but this book bore very strong similarities to My Sister’s Keeper, probably Picoult’s best-known novel. Let’s see, it’s about a family with a special needs child, a mother who is well-meaning but blinded to some truths about her family in her single-mindedness, another daughter who feels neglected and misunderstood, a father who is caught in the middle, a lawyer who has her own side story; there’s a court case and a big shock ending. Still, as the legal battle at the centre is completely different, it wouldn’t be fair to call it a rehash.

The story: Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe‘s five-year-old daughter, Willow, was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which means that she will suffer hundreds of broken bones in her lifetime, not to mention myriads of other complications. Her parents adore Willow, but her condition puts a huge emotional and financial strain on the family, who are not well-off.

Through a series of events, Charlotte gets a chance of suing for “wrongful birth” by claiming that, through the negligence of her obstetrician, she did not get a choice of whether or not to go ahead with the pregnancy when the option of abortion was still available. The obstetrician in question also happens to be her best friend, Piper.

Like many Picoult books, I thought it raised some fascinating questions and dilemmas on an issue I haven’t previously thought about much, and explored them even-handedly from a variety of viewpoints. Is Charlotte a good mother for wanting the best financial support for her daughter, or is she a terrible person for ruining her best friend’s life and reputation and plunging her family in an emotional chaos? How does anyone decide what kind of life is worth living?

Charlotte is one of those mothers-who-go-too-far who are something of a staple in Picoult books, but unlike some of them I found her mostly sympathetic, if misguided and bull-headed at times. Another sympathetic character is Amelia, Charlotte’s eldest daughter, who feels invisible in the family where most of her parents’ attention goes to Willow while at the same time loathing her own selfishness, and deals with her inner turmoil in self-destructive ways. Willow herself sometimes feels too saintly and perfect, like that cliché where a precocious kid utters bits of wisdom that just blows the adults out of their socks; the only reason she’s not completely insufferable is the rare moments when she sulks and bickers with her sister, i.e. behaves like a normal kid rather than Little Jesus.

Overall I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t care for parts of it, particularly the baking recipes scattered in between the chapters (Charlotte was apparently a baker before becoming a full-time parent). I’m not sure what dramatic purpose they served and unless you’re really into baking recipes they’re just tedious interruptions.

And I really didn’t care for the ending. I normally don’t discuss them in my reviews, but this one well and truly annoyed the hell out of me.







So in the end, the jury finds in favour of O’Keefes and awards them a giant sum of money… before, at the very very end, Willow falls through the ice on the nearby lake and drowns. In fiction, everything does happen for a reason, and I couldn’t figure out why on earth Picoult would go with this ending apart from the cheap shock value.

But then it dawned on me that the ending simply meant to punish Charlotte with an empty victory where she gains the money for her daughter but loses her daughter. And that really left a bad taste in my mouth; for the book that took so many pains trying to be even-handed towards its characters and the issues it touched upon it was a very cruel move, and it ends up treating Willow as little more than a prop.

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