Drawing strength from a brittle child
It's hard to fault best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult. Why mess with a winning formula? In her most successful books, Picoult develops a plot around a provocative topical issue and unreels the story through the alternating voices of a cast of characters offering differing perspectives, often omitting the voice of the main figure at the heart of the tale. It has been a fairly effective contrivance in previous bestsellers such as "Change of Heart" and "Nineteen Minutes." But in Picoult's new "Handle With Care," the construct feels a little tired and tepid, creating more distance than illumination. We don't get much inspiration to really care about the characters, who never quite emerge as flesh and blood.
In addition, the story itself lacks the tension and suspense of previous novels, yet the book's central ethical dilemma doesn't provoke nearly as much reflection as we know Picoult's writing can. If it's not going to be a page turner, better have a little more meat on the bones to chew on in contemplation.
But part of the problem may be the subject matter, which, for a parent, can make for painful reading. The topic du jour of "Handle With Care" is the slippery slope of the issue of "wrongful birth," which implies that an obstetrician who knows that an unborn child will be significantly impaired has the responsibility to provide guidance to the mother regarding possible abortion. The moral dilemma raised is "Who has the right to decide what kind of life is too limited to be worth living?" But while most every parent recalls the fervent prayers for a healthy child and the dark, furtive introspection of "What if?," "Handle With Care" doesn't bring that effectively home.
The central figure of the story is Willow, who suffers from a brittle-bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI. By the time she is 6 1/2, she has endured 68 broken bones, countless surgeries, and endless rehabilitation. Willow's story is told primarily through the voices of her mother, Charlotte; her father, Sean, a 19-year police veteran; and her 12-year-old sister, Amelia, who is overweight, bulimic, and out of control, having spent much of her childhood taking a back seat to her sister's grave disabilities.
The other two voices are those of Piper, Charlotte's best friend and the obstetrician who delivered Willow, and Marin, a lawyer Charlotte hires after rather impetuously deciding to sue for Willow's "wrongful birth," setting the book's central drama in motion. It's not that Charlotte would have aborted Willow, just that she feels Piper misdiagnosed her daughter's condition, denying Charlotte an informed choice. While Charlotte's goal is to use settlement money to provide a more comfortable life for Willow, her litigation causes pain and turmoil for nearly everyone she loves, including herself.
Through each alternating voice, all written as if speaking to Willow herself, the story slowly unfurls. We learn about life in small town Bankton, N.H., "where if you forgot your credit card at the grocery store, the checkout girl would just let you take your food and come back to pay later." We learn about Willow's unremitting fragility, Amelia's understandable feelings of neglect, and Marin's search for her own birth mother, a side story that seems unconvincingly convenient.
Willow emerges as just a little too stoic and precocious to be true, and her parents' love for her seems improbably romanticized. Charlotte tells her daughter that she's "the girl whose laugh has always resonated inside my own body like a tuning fork. I would never have wished for an able-bodied child, because that child would have been someone who wasn't you." Sean says, "Your soul was stronger than your body, and in spite of what the doctors told me over and over, I always believed that was the reason for the breaks. What ordinary skeleton could contain a heart as big as the whole world?"
Though Picoult tends to overwork the poetic, "Handle With Care" is still a fairly engaging if sometimes arduous read. And there are moments when her imagery or insight catches the breath. Some of the most compelling sections are the recipes Picoult slips in between chapters, reflecting Charlotte's past life as a baker. Picoult deftly manages to inject insightful commentary into the preparation of enticing foods, adding in one "I like the proof in the pastry: it is the things we have to bear that shape us." In another, she cautions, "The soufflés are done when they are well risen . . . but do not be surprised if they sink under the weight of their own promise."
Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.