Sep 01

Book Review: Handle with Care

Handle with CareHandle with Care by Jodi Picoult


This is my second book by Jodi Picoult, and I think I had enough of a sense from the first one that I knew what I was getting into. They are very feminine books, centered around feelings and relationships and children most of all.

One of the cool things about this book is that nearly every chapter was written as if addressed to the main character, Willow. Willow is the daughter of Charlotte and Sean, the little sister of Amelia. She’s got OI, a genetic disorder that makes her bones break extremely easily. Sean is a cop, and Charlotte is a former pastry chef who is not a martyr who spends all her time taking care of Willow.

The story starts when their vacation in Disneyworld is ruined by Willow breaking her hips. They’ve forgotten the doctor’s note that explains about Willow’s OI, so the parents spend the night in jail under suspicion of child abuse, while Amelia spends the night in a foster home. Sean takes the whole event poorly, especially when other cops at work make fun of him, so he decides someone ought to be sued. This isn’t his first rodeo in the litigious category; he had previously sued Ford for making a truck that hurt his back after he rode in it too long (or something). It turns out that they can’t sue Disneyworld or the doctors at the hospital, but the lawyer Marin, says that they can sue the OBGYN who didn’t tell Charlotte about Willow’s time soon enough to abort. The complicating factor is that the OBGYN is Piper, who happens to also be Charlotte’s best friend, and the mother of Amelia’s best friend.

The main point of the book is this: Willow is very hard to care for, is in near-constant pain, and is doomed to not live a long or normal or healthy life on account of her condition. Picoult’s point, it seems, is that no matter how horrible and awful it is to raise a disabled child, once you know the child, you fall in love to the point where you can’t imagine life without them. It feels a bit like a pro-life screed, especially when it turns out that Marin is adopted, under circumstances in which many women might have chosen abortion. It’s an interesting theme, or it might have been, had it not been so one-sided.

Charlotte becomes gung-ho to sue her best friend for negligence, claiming damages on account of Piper should have told Charlotte about Willow’s OI at the first ultrasound. Not only is this a colossally stupid thing to do, completely implausible that a jury would actually award damages, but it doesn’t seem in character. Both Sean and Charlotte are Catholics, and Charlotte desperately wanted a baby, and said in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t abort, no matter what. So to have Charlotte tear apart her friendship, her family, her marriage to claim damages based on not being able to abort in time (when she wouldn’t have aborted anyway) seems like Picoult forcing the plot to make a point. I didn’t believe Charlotte. I didn’t believe that a devout Catholic would pretend under oath that she would have aborted her daughter. I didn’t believe that a martyr-type mother would go through the trial and say to the world that she wished Willow hadn’t been born. Charlotte is presented as a sweet, loving mother, an amazing and competent woman, a good friend, but she acts like none of these when she does the lawsuit. The only thing she gets out of it is money, money she ends up not even using. So why did she do it? Because the author forced her to.

I really didn’t like the characters that much. I felt bad for Piper for having a traitorous friend, and for Amelia, for having parents who treat her like an unwanted child. Sean was completely unlikeable, though believable as a cop (he seems terrified of losing control). Amelia goes off the deep end pretty quickly, and her issues seem believable, though I never quite figured out how old she was supposed to be. She’s I guess ten or eleven, but she’s written more like a teenager. Piper and Sean have a kind of thing going at a couple points, and that also felt forced. Piper says she doesn’t like Sean (I don’t blame her.) and Piper is also supposed to be super-competent, but she asks him (?!) for help with her renovation project, which she’s like an expert with (?!) because she stops working when she gets sued and stays home and works on the house instead. So they run into each other at the hardware store, where Piper has been spending all her time, and she complains that she can’t figure out the wiring, and he’s going to help. Why would he know how to wire something if she doesn’t? Like a medical doctor with a passion for renovation is too silly and girly to look up instructional videos on YouTube? Was that just a “come and see my etchings” pretense? The whole scene felt, once again, forced. Ditto for Charlotte going into a baking frenzy and putting the baked goods in the wheelbarrow at the end of the drive with a box that somehow makes money? Too many coincidences, too many stereotypes.

So I get what Picoult was trying to do, and the pieces are in place, but it just didn’t quite gel for me. Like the recipes that serve as kind of epigraphs for the chapters. They didn’t really work for me. I did love that each chapter had a different font, so you could tell whose voice it was in. That was a neat trick that I may emulate.

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