Jodi Picoult – Handle With Care

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.

Comments

  1. says

    “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.”

    – I couldn’t agree more! I never heard of Picoult until I read 19 Minutes and thought “What a great writer!” Then I started reading the rest of her books only to discover that they went from bad to worse. The Pact and My Sister’s Keeper were the worst. I know she recently had a new book published about autism. As an autistic, I can only imagine how offensive this book will be to me, so I avoid it like the plague.

    • Scarlett says

      Yeah, that’s something I find really frustrating about her. She gets it SOMETIMES but usually just shoots herself in the foot. Nineteen Minutes was one of the first that I read and I loved how she captured the culture of bullying and how nothing was going to change while people refused to take responsibility for their actions/accept that their darling child was capable of bulling. But as for the rest – I’m not sure which of the four I found more offensive, Salem Falls, MSK, HWC or The Pact.

      I didn’t think House Rules – the Aspergers one – was too bad, at least by Picoult’s standards. I felt she at least TRIED to show us what Jacob was thinking, though it felt like she was sensationalising a lot of stuff and apparantly a lot of Asperger’s groups have been unimpressed.

        • Ginny! says

          Depends. It’s a hugely popular one. Something I like about it is that it’s told in first person rather than third person by the people around the person with Asperger’s.

          However, The Speed of Dark and Marcelo in the Real World are also first-person Asperger’s character books. I really enjoyed both of those, although both had slightly unsatisfactory endings.

          • Scarlett says

            Yeah, House Rules tells the story from half a dozen perspectives (typical Picoult narrative) including that of the central character, a twenty-year-old with Aspergers. It’s not great, but I did like the way they showed us Jacob’s thoughts and rationale.

  2. Ginny! says

    Wow. That’s just appalling. O_o

    When I was reading MSK, I wanted more discussion of the costs. It wasn’t until over half way through the book that finances and insurance were mentioned. That frustrated me. However, considering what it sounds like this book does, maybe I’m just fine after all. O_o

    • Scarlett says

      Yeah, it does go more into the cost – financially and emotionally – of having such a chronically ill child. And it’s interesting to read about the US health care system and the idea that everyone should be able to pay their own way and if they can’t, it’s their own fault. And you know what? Had it been better written, I could totally have understood Charlotte’s position – so emotionally and financially drained that she sees her only relief in turning on her best friend. But Picoult totally fails to flesh that out.

      And it probably wouldn’t have been nearly so bad had Willow not died at the end. For some reason that just struck me as the tackiest thing Picoult has ever done.

  3. Casey says

    So…is this all she writes? What sort of genre is “sickly kids ruin everything and also douchey money-grubbing moms are suing for stuff”? :|

    • Scarlett says

      Well MSK, House Rules and HWC are pretty much awful for that reason. Salem Falls is awful because it trots out the ‘girls cry rape when actually they’re being sexually abuse by their father’ trope (there’s an article about it in here somewhere) and The Pact was just plain awful. Songs of the Humpback Whale made me feel a bit uncomfortable because the main male character, the husband, seemed like the ‘manipulative jerk posing as nice guy’ trope, and I don’t know if she was doing it intentionally or in a Stephenie Meyer/Edward Cullen mood’, but was mostly just boring.I found the majority of her books to be boring.

      However, as I said, Nineteen Minutes was very good. It was about a boy who was bullied all his life who eventually takes out his rage in a Colombine-style massacre, told in present and flashback form over half a dozen narratives, and I felt it really captures the culture of bullying and the fact until we as a culture recognise it, the same things will happen. I’d say the only good book in a pile of crap that was either boring or offensive.

    • Ginny! says

      The worst of it is that Picoult’s work seems better than it is. When I was reading MSK, I was really into it. It was quite moving, and I really cared about some of the characters. But then it all went squirrelly, and I was left with a very bad taste in my mouth. :(

      I think Picoult is a good writer. I just take issue with what she writes about and what her takeaway message seems to be.

      • scarlett says

        I know! She often starts off well with interesting, emotive (if a little implausible) concepts and then decends into claptrap with takeway messages that leave a bad taste in your mouth.

        (Spoiler alert – these books aren’t worth reading anyway)

        HWC – Mum who’s willing to tell a court she wishes her daughter was never born to get a payout ends up losing the daughter to a pond accident after she gets the millions.

        MSK – Mum who’s willing to trade one daughter’s health to save another’s ends up losing first daughter to save the second.

        The Pact – Teenage girl gets trapped in a relationship then kills herself when she becomes pregnant

        Salem Falls – Girl cries rape against nice guy, turns out daddy was sexually abusing her.

        Good Lord, I can’t believe I read all these books now that I’ve written it down. In all fairness, she isn’t without talent and often starts well… by the time you realise your mistake, you want to see how it ends. Don’t have an excuse after the first few books, though :(

        • Casey says

          That’s a real shame, it seems she peaked with Nineteen Minutes and the rest is just crap
          (maybe she should just stick to writing about the culture of bullying :P).

          • scarlett says

            I was thinking – her MO seems to be magnifying the problems in ‘our’ (by that I mean both Western in general and US specifically) culture and legal system, to a point where it’s somewhat implausaible. (No way would the events of MSK gone as far as they did.)Like, if you can’t afford to care for a chronically ill child, then you’re SOL and have to resort to suing your best mate. And that worked really well in Nineteen Minutes, the culture of, yeah, we’ll respond to bullying by isolating the bullied kid and letting the bully carry on, and when said kids shoots up his school, we’ll call him evil and his mum a monster for spawning him without looking at why said kid was so desperate in the first place.

            Which makes me wonder: did that formular simply work for NM and she kept using it, or has she always used it and she lucked into something highly workable with NM? Or neither?

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