February 28, 2009
Handle With Care
Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
2009 Atria Books
Finished on 2/16/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
ARC - Due out on March 3, 2009
Synopsis (from author's website):
When Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe’s daughter, Willow, is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, they are devastated – she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain. As the family struggles to make ends meet to cover Willow’s medical expenses, Charlotte thinks she has found an answer. If she files a wrongful birth lawsuit against her ob/gyn for not telling her in advance that her child would be born severely disabled, the monetary payouts might ensure a lifetime of care for Willow. But it means that Charlotte has to get up in a court of law and say in public that she would have terminated the pregnancy if she’d known about the disability in advance – words that her husband can’t abide, that Willow will hear, and that Charlotte cannot reconcile. And the ob/gyn she’s suing isn’t just her physician – it’s her best friend.
Handle With Care explores the knotty tangle of medical ethics and personal morality. When faced with the reality of a fetus who will be disabled, at which point should an OB counsel termination? Should a parent have the right to make that choice? How disabled is TOO disabled? And as a parent, how far would you go to take care of someone you love? Would you alienate the rest of your family? Would you be willing to lie to your friends, to your spouse, to a court? And perhaps most difficult of all – would you admit to yourself that you might not actually be lying?
Jodi Picoult fans are in for a treat. This Tuesday, Handle With Care will be available for purchase and I know it will be yet another winner for so many readers. I also know it will be an easy book to recommend to friends and customers (and even my father, with whom I spoke the other night; he mentioned that he was reading—and enjoying—Picoult's previous release, Change of Heart!).
Handle With Care is classic Picoult. The conflict around which the plot revolves is revealed through multiple points of view, with each chapter divided among five main characters, giving voice to their perspectives on an emotionally charged situation. I can't recall the last time I so enjoyed a book in which one of the main characters was so unlikeable. I even considered tossing the book aside for something more uplifting, but after reading a few more pages I was hooked. I tried to put myself in Charlotte's position, wondering what I would do in her situation, but never once found myself in agreement with her decision to go forward with the lawsuit. I can't begin to imagine the life of a parent of a child afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). Every day, every hour, every single moment poses a potentially dangerous situation. The constant worry about each new break, the emotional drain and exhaustion, not to mention the incredible financial burden imposed on a family (even one with insurance coverage), must test even the strongest of parents. From beginning to end, I was angry about the choices Charlotte made, unable to understand what still I believe was a selfish act of greed and betrayal. I was much more sympathetic toward Sean and Willow's older sister, Amelia, oftentimes wanting to reach through the pages and shake some sense into Charlotte.
In classic Picoult style, the novel raises an ethical question—that of wrongful birth:
A wrongful birth lawsuit implies that, if the mother had known during her pregnancy that her child was going to be significantly impaired, she would have chosen to abort the fetus. It places the onus of responsibility for the child's subsequent disability on the ob-gyn. From a plaintiff's standpoint, it's a medical malpractice suit. For the defense, it becomes a morality question: who has the right to decide what kind of life is too limited to be worth living?
Many states had banned wrongful birth suits. New Hampshire wasn't one of them. There had been several settlements for the parents of children who'd been born with spina bifida or cystic fibrosis or, in one case, a boy who was profoundly retarded and wheelchair-bound due to a genetic abnormality—even though the illness had never been diagnosed before, much less noticed in utero. In New Hampshire, parents were responsible for the care of disabled children their whole lives--not just till age eighteen—which was as good a reason as any to seek damages.
If you chose to stop a loved one's suffering—either before it began or during the process—was that murder, or mercy?
I enjoy reading books in which the characters are represented in alternating chapters. My only quibble this time, however, is that the characters sounded like they were talking to Willow, not in dialogue, but as if the story itself were being retold to her at a later date. I generally don't care for a character speaking directly to the reader and that's what this felt like. It became a distraction early on and it wasn't until the closing chapters, when I was so intent on the final outcome of the courtroom drama, that I was able to ignore this minor annoyance.
Handle With Care is a powerful book, one that will remain with me for a long, long while. I highly recommend it!
For more information about osteogenesis imperfecta, go here.
Visit Picoult's website to watch a trailer for the novel, read an excerpt, or listen to a podcast about the story behind Handle With Care.