Books: Handle with Care

Having finished Nineteen Minutes, I decided to try another novel by Jodi Picoult and selected Handle with Care. Like Nineteen Minutes, it explores a contemporary issue from the perspectives of several characters.

This time, the issue is the idea of “wrongful birth.” Charlotte O’Keefe loves her handicapped daughter Willow and dedicates most of her time and energy to caring for her. But when she finds out that she could bring a wrongful birth lawsuit against her obstetrician for failing to diagnose Willow’s osteogenesis imperfecta early enough to terminate the pregnancy, she decides this is the best way to secure a good life for her daughter.Of course, Charlotte is well aware of the contradiction inherent in the idea of seeking a better life for a child by claiming that her life should have ended before birth. She realizes that her actions may cause Willow to doubt her mother’s love for her, and that the lawsuit driving a wedge between her and her husband, Sean. (Unfortunately she does not have the slightest idea what it is doing to her older daughter, Amelia.)

But she forges ahead anyway. The end justifies the means. She has become obsessive about winning the lawsuit, when just about everyone around her – including readers of the novel – see what hurt she is causing and wish she would give it up already. By the end of the novel, many readers can’t stand Charlotte – if they made it that far. Since I was listening to the audiobook, I didn’t even like hearing Charlotte’s voice anymore. (Unlike most audiobooks I have listened to, each character is voiced by a different person.)

At the beginning of each section (chapter? – it’s hard to tell with an audiobook), Charlotte – who used to be a pastry chef – provides a recipe that involves some process that is metaphorically related to what is going on in the book. Even aside from the annoying diversion from the storyline into culinary arts I would not dare attempt, I found her voice particularly unwelcome in her detailed recitation of each recipe.

Still, I was drawn into the drama of the story, and I did care about Sean and Amelia, as well as what would happen to Willow. The fact that the story was always told in the second person, to Willow, regardless of who was telling it, seemed to presage some disaster.

I thought that, on the whole, the characters in this novel seem better developed than in Nineteen Minutes, but another review, in The Boston Globe points out that “Willow emerges as just a little too stoic and precocious to be true, and her parents’ love for her seems improbably romanticized.” While caught up in the story I hadn’t seen it that way, but once I had finished and looked back on the book, I decided that was true.

Only after I finished the book did I decide I just don’t like the way Picoult writes. I read in a review in New York Times that “Picoult does not see herself as a genre writer but rather as a purveyor of social commentary.” Picoult raises awareness of issues regarding living with disabilities, the value of life, and, in the subplots dealing with Amelia, bulimia and cutting. Yet it seems that mostly she exposes pain and suffering without offering much in the way of hope, wisdom, or joy. I found the same to be true in Nineteen Minutes.

That same review in the New York Times explains how this novel, like all of Picoult’s writing, is part of a trend of “children-in-peril literature.” Parents make poor choices which adversely affect their children’s lives, often without realizing the harm they are causing. Children are in danger not only from their parents’ mistakes but also from a variety of other dangers.

I imagine someone reading Picoult’s novels might wonder about the wisdom of bringing children into the world. There was a time when I didn’t plan to ever have children, not because I didn’t want the responsibilities but because I didn’t think I’d be a good mother. My mother had always told me that she didn’t know how to be a good mother because she didn’t have one (her mother committed suicide when she was young). So how would I do any better? I’m glad I didn’t read Picoult’s novels back then. (Not that there were any – her first novel was published two days before my first son was born.)

Another criticism of the novel comes from someone who has osteogenesis imperfecta herself. While appreciative of Picoult’s accurate presentation of information about OI, she expresses her disappointment (anger?) with Picoult for the way she writes about a child with OI. Picoult gets the physical details right. But this person says that children with OI don’t generally pine so much for activities they can’t safely take part in. And while the disabled certainly can have impressive accomplishments like some Picoult depicts in this novel, that fact is not the best argument for their right to life – as though the fact that some disabled will accomplish very little in life would provide a weaker argument for their right to live.

No doubt part of my reaction to the novel is due to its ending. In that, I can tell from many reader reviews at amazon.com that I am hardly alone. Is it true to life? Maybe (the review mentioned above by someone with OI disputes the likelihood of it). But the idea of literature is not to simply depict life as it happens.

One of the most boring books I ever read, in grad school, did just that, and apparently the message was that life is meaningless, apart from the meaning we each choose to give it (which means that it ultimately has none). But most of us expect books to present ideas, a theme, and moral values. What the ending of Picoult’s novel contributes to its theme is unclear to me. Unless it is that having kids and experiencing tragedy are inextricably linked.

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