Ah, the time I have wasted reading Jodi Picoult in the hope of finding a novel that rivaled her Nineteen Minutes. Most of them are just plain boring, but some are downright offensive to several groups, like Salem Falls and My Sister’s Keeper. Her second most recent novel, Handle With Care, falls into this category.
It follows the life of the O’Keefe family: mum, Charlotte, oldest daughter Amelia, her step-father Sean – Charlotte’s second husband – and Sean and Charlotte’s daughter Willow, Amelia’s younger half-sister. Willow has osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle-bone disease; her bones are about as strong as chalk, and the slightest bump or fall can result in breaking one. Even walking can cause hairline fractures, and as she gets older she can look forward to a poor quality of life as a result of both the disease itself and the broken bones it causes. She’s broken dozens of bones in the course of her short life, including several just in delivery. Willow is uninsurable and the O’Keefe family have to get by on what limited aid they get from a market-driven health care system and what they can afford to pay for. For example, Willow is only entitled to one wheelchair every five years; so what she was fitted for when she was five has to last until she was ten. Charlotte, who used to be a successful pastry chef and dreamed of opening her own patisserie, now has to look after Willow 24/7.
After one too many accidents resulting in a broken bone – this time her pelvis, a particularly nasty one to break – Charlotte gets the idea to sue her obstetrician Piper, who also happens to be her best friend, for ‘wrongful life’. That is, that had Charlotte known of Willow’s debilitating disease – had Piper picked it up in an ultrasound – Charlotte would have had an abortion. Typical of Picoult, it’s an emotive, contentious concept, and she captures the desperation of a family in dire financial straits on top of the emotional drain of living with such a chronically ill child. Particularly with Amelia, she portrays a child herself who has lived in her sister’s shadow for the duration of Willow’s life, and resorted to bulimia and self-harm. But Picoult also royally drops the ball in her portrayal of Charlotte.
Partway through the book, Charlotte admits – I forget to who – that she wouldn’t have had the abortion even had she known Willow suffered from the disease. So she’s suing her best friend solely for the money then. Now, I could actually understand why she would do such a thing – the book makes it clear just how much it costs to take care of a child like Willow – but the way Charlotte is written makes it very difficult to have any sympathy for her. Charlotte actually gets called on the fact she’s suing her obstetrician at a family convention for osteogenesis imperfecta sufferers and their families; basically they feel that to launch such a lawsuit is tantamount to saying Charlotte doesn’t want Willow and Willow’s existence has brought the family nothing but aggro. I would have liked to see that fleshed out more – she admits she still would have had Willow, so clearly Willow has brought her joy over the years, but we never see anything beyond a black hole of money and emotions that had been sunk into such a chronic illness. If Charlotte would have had Willow anyway, then a lack of exploration into the desperation of the dire financial straits they were in results in her coming across as someone who would stab her so-called best friend in the back for a payout. And admitting in open court that you would never have had your daughter had you known of her disability? Yeah, Willow’s not going to have issues because of that at all.
But guess what? It doesn’t matter! Because after they get a payout of eight million dollars, Willow dies in a pond accident when the ice collapses underneath her and she drowns. The accident is unrelated to her disease, except in the sense that she was on the ice because it has always fascinated her, but skating was considered too dangerous for her. I’m not sure what Picoult meant to say with this ending – was it meant to be tragic irony? Or far worse, that people with such a debilitating disability are better off dead? Whatever it was meant to say, it came across to me as a case of ‘haha, that’s what you get for saying you wish she had never been born in a cash-grab’.
I don’t think Picoult is without talent and I feel she does, at times, flesh out the financial and emotional costs of living with a family member suffering from such chronic illness. She also goes into the difficulty of caring for such a family member under the American health-care system, something she explores in My Sister’s Keeper and House Rules; that short of being independently wealthy, someone who needs ongoing and/or round-the-clock care is plum out of luck. At the same time, it was just impossible to feel sympathy for Charlotte after her motives are revealed to be a cash-grab rather than a genuine belief that Piper is responsible for the O’Keefes being in the situation that she is; Picoult really hasn’t done her justice. And having Willow die at the end was just tacky.