MARCH 4, 2009
Handle with Care ~ Jodi Picoult
Handle with Care
Some books are hard to talk about with giving away too much. Jodi Picoult's Handle With Care is one of these. Anyone reading a summary will get a feel for the plot. Charlotte and Sean O'Keefe have two daughters, Amelia and Willow and could be the picture of the average American family. But average they are not as Willow suffers from a rare, disfiguring disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, a disorder which causes bones to break easily.
The story beings with Charlotte as narrator. “Things break all the time. Glass, and dishes, and fingernails. Cars and contracts and potato chips. You can break a record, a horse, a dollar. You can break the ice. There are coffee breaks and lunch breaks and prison breaks. Day breaks, waves break, voices break. Chains can be broken So can silence , and fever.” Picoult is the queen of metaphor and references to break and broken are peppered throught the book. As Willow grows and medical costs rise the O'Keefe's must find a way to foot the bill. If she files a wrongful birth lawsuit against her ob/gyn who did not tell her that her child would be severely disabled, and if they win the lawsuit, the resulting compensation would ensure Willow would get the care she deserves. It also means that Charlotte must say that she would have terminated the pregnancy if she’d known about the disability in advance. To add another element to her dilemma, the ob/gyn is not only her physician but her friend.
Picoult twists this story every which way and that, almost too much for me. She puts the whole family, Charlotte, Sean, Amelia, the family of Piper (ob/gyn), the lawyers, both sides, plaintiff and defendant, the community, the whole lot, under a very powerful microscope and dissects them piece by piece. It can be painful to read.
Jodi Picoult is my adopted author. This means I sponsor her books at my public library. I do this as I have been a fan since I read Plain Truth many years ago. Though in all I learned a great deal from reading Handle With Care, I wouldn't say it is Picoult's best effort. Without spoiling the story for others here are my complaints. First, I believe the use of single narration, each character, telling their story in solo chapters, has been overdone by Picoult. I want something new. There's way too much use of, for a lack of better word, gimmick. I didn't think I'd ever say that but for me, this tactic makes the whole less believable and satisfying. Her characters are well developed, almost too much so. And the plot twists; well, twists too much. Saying this I'll still give it a four out of a five star. I cared about the characters, some made me angry, some made me cry. I learned a great deal. The exploration of relationships is Picoult at her best. In the end I was left with lots to think about. The story will stay with me and I would like to discuss it with friends. So what's my problem? Perhaps my overall pique is is just being plain picky. What more do I want from a book? Perhaps you can tell, I'm compromised in my opinion, on the one hand this, on the other, that; left a bit unbalanced in the end. As I hold Jodi Picoult in high esteem, I want a little less gimmick a bit less analyzing of every angle with the end result being the sum of the fine storyteller Picoult is. Read Handle with Care for yourself and see what you think.
bas bleu said, on Mar. 5 at 4:55PM
I just read that Picoult will be in Madison this Sunday (3/9) to give a book talk. I also read that this book includes dessert recipes because the main character is a pastry chef. What is your opinion of the recipes? I know when Picoult incorporated elements of a graphic novel into one of her previous works, I was not too enamored of that device. Do the recipes add to or detract from the plot?
ckubala said, on Mar. 5 at 5:17PM
Thanks for mentioning Picoult's appearance in Madison. I actually meant to do that. I've have been to 3 Jodi Picoult signings and she has always been worth the miles to see her. She is a great speaker, one of the absolute best I've ever heard.
As for the recipes. This is one of the things that I called gimmick in my review. The recipes are good, fit the plot and are not just given verbatim. There is commentary fitting with the subject of the book. They do fit, but added little for me.
Let me add that probably the character that will stay with me the most in this story is Amelia, who for lack of a better term, I'll call the well sister. My brother had heart problems and needed several operations in a time when open heart surgery was in its infancy. I was the well child. In my adult years, I can appreciate what my brother's medical needs meant to my parents and they did what they needed to do. As a child what I saw was that he got a great deal of attention. I couldn't make him cry, he could be manipulative and my parents were at doctors appointments and at the hospital with him quite a bit. As a parent who also had a child with special needs, I can see both sides of the picture, from the one needing the care and the one who feels like they are invisible. It is such a delicate balance raising children, particularly when one seemingly needs so much more than another. This is where Picoult's books shine and Handle With Care does a fine job of portraying these conflicts. So isn't this enough? Does she need to add the recipes, etc. Maybe, but I thought not.
bas bleu said, on Mar. 27 at 4:02PM
I keep putting this book down, saying to myself that I am not going to read any more of it, and then picking it up again. I am about two-thirds of the way through the book now. Perhaps I am nitpicking, but I am finding certain things tiresome. One is how Willow is always spouting out these random facts at every opportunity. I just can't help feeling that Picoult is getting her money's worth from the Book of Useless Information that she mentions in the Author's Note. Another is the weird way Picoult has developed the character of the husband. At one point she writes of him driving aimlessly around random neighborhoods, picturing the insides of houses, and includes the detail of him imagining "...a stone paperweight crudely painted like a ladybug pinning down the day's mail..." Sorry, but that detail sounds like something straight from her imagination and not something that Sean might even think about. In one chapter, the family is described as being so broke that they are eating meatless meals of pasta several times a week. But within pages, they are making cinnamon bread, oatmeal cookies, blondies, corn muffins, raspberry velvet cake (raspberries are $4.99 for a half pint right now....), plum tarte Tatin, apple turnovers, pinwheel cookies, and macaroons. No one just happens to have the ingredients to all of these things just magically in their pantry waiting for a baking orgy, especially someone whose finances are so very limited. As I said, it's these types of jarring details that pull me out of the story and make me wonder what's up with Picoult.
ckubala said, on Mar. 29 at 7:49AM
Points well taken and some fine examples of what irritated me about this book. The integrity of the plot and the author are weakened considerably by just the things you mention. I'm hoping Picoult takes a step backward in style and returns to a more straightforward story line, relying less on quirky devices to embellish her stories.
pg said, on Apr. 15 at 5:15PM
I did not like Handle With Care nearly as much as her other books that I have read. I was actually somewhat disappointed. I really didn't care for the recipes. I got to the point where I would skip down to the end to read the little "proverb" or connection to what was going on in the story. Also, the lawyer Marin's search for her birth mother - I saw how it created a conflict for her trying the case but the reason her mother gave her up for adoption has been overdone. I had that figured out before the mother told her.
I read your review, ckubala, and I disagree with you about her use of the different characters' voices. I do like that style of hers, and although you thought it was time for a change - I still really like that. In the beginning, and sometimes even later in the book though, I had to remind myself that each person was talking to Willow. Once in awhile the "you" would throw me off and I'd have to tell myself - oh, they're talking to Willow.
As far as the story itself goes - it was a very difficult issue. I could understand what Charlotte wanted to do for her daughter - and why. But, I could definitely see Sean's view (and everyone else's) about how hurtful it would be for Willow to hear what her mother was going to say. Of course, the child felt unwanted - no matter how many times Charlotte tried to reassure her.
I didn't like the ending either. After all that...
Well, that's my two cents' worth!!!!!! Thanks for the website! It's interesting reading your reviews, and they will help me select other books in the future.
ckubala said, on Apr. 15 at 5:35PM
I'm really enjoying the discussion about this book. Reading the comments gives me a different perspective on how Picoult handled the story-line. PG makes a good point that you do have to keep in mind that all the characters are talking to Willow. Even though I'm a bit tired reading each characters point of view, it does reflect real life where everyone sees the same thing in a different light, their own reality so to speak.
I still love that she chooses controversial topics and takes them head on.
Do you have any thoughts on a subject you wish she'd write about? We were talking in the library yesterday and thought a character with bi-polar might be interesting.
bas bleu said, on Apr. 18 at 11:21AM
Has anyone else read the article about Picoult in this week's Newsweek magazine?
bas bleu said, on Apr. 18 at 11:42AM
I think Picoult would do a great job with a topic like drug addiction/substance abuse, especially since her writing style generally employs the use of the different characters' voices. Her readers could experience the effect that one character's choices and behavior have on the lives of the other characters.
We had a speaker come to our school this past week. She had lost her son to a heroin overdose more than ten years ago, and her presentation was so powerful. I could see how deeply moved my students were when she described the effect of her son's addiction on her life. At one point she said that she felt such constant, all-consuming fear and anxiety that the only way she could picture herself being free of it were if her son were dead. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium...
Imagine if Picoult could reach millions of readers with this same message.
ckubala said, on Apr. 18 at 1:29PM
bas bleu, your last post gave me shivers. A drug/alcohol addiction or even a mental illness affects everyone in a family.
I thoroughly agree that Ms. Picoult would handle a story about drug addiction; either teens or adults quite well. I feel she would explore the topic and how the addiction affects family dynamics.
I think we should suggest this to Jodi Picoult. She might want to tackle this compelling subject.
bas bleu said, on Apr. 18 at 2:12PM
You should do exactly that and see if you get a response! Isn't it ironic how some of the most compelling discussions evolve from books that we might not care for all that much? [...just my personal opinion of this particular Picoult novel...]
ckubala said, on Apr. 18 at 4:13PM
I did read the article in Newsweek entitled "Why Is It A
Sin To Read For Fun? by Jennie Yabroff. If our Connecticut
readers are interested you can read the article by using the
databases (General One File) at www.iconn.org. I've never thought it sinful to read for fun but some people in my family think I do far too much of this.
One comment from the article that I do take a little bitty exception to is this by Picoult "In terms of the literary
content of the 'Twilight' books, they're totally escapist. I
think technically I am maybe a cut above,".
It's the "cut above" that irritates me. Just what does that mean? Is one genre better than another, is Picoult "a cut below" one author, a "full slice below" another, a "whole pie above" another? Who makes these decisions? Recently Stephen King went off on how bad a writer Stephanie Meyers is, but gave high marks to J.K. Rowling and Picoult. Many fans or those who are not, stated their opinion. What's wrong with just enjoying what we enjoy and not having to justify our pleasure in what we read.
bas bleu said, on Apr. 19 at 6:39AM
I totally agree with you, ckubala. My reading choices tend to be wildly eclectic. On one end of the spectrum are the Regency novels that my younger daughter and I enjoy. Do I have to justify their literary merit? I suppose I could if I had to. I have learned so many interesting facts about that time period, and most of the authors of this genre employ a writing style that utilizes an extensive vocabulary. Mostly, however, I read them for sheer enjoyment, the same enjoyment someone might receive from watching a baseball game on TV or going to the movies or mall. I have very strongly-held beliefs when it comes to reading: I don't believe in censorship and I don't believe in a hierarchy of literature that elevates one genre over another. It's all about the personal interaction of a reader with the world created by an author. The experience is as individual and unique as a fingerprint.
bas bleu said, on Jun. 26 at 8:37AM
I just read a movie review of My Sister's Keeper, and they loved it! I am anxious to see what they did with the story...I heard they changed the ending and that makes me sad. I thought the ending was so unexpected that it really took the reader by surprise...I might just have to reread the book beforehand so I can pick up on all of the other changes!
CarolK said, on Jun. 26 at 8:43AM
Can't wait to see it but also am disappointed that the ending has been changed. Our book group has not done a Picoult book since Plain Truth. I am really itching to chat up her books with others.
My Sister's Keeper seems like a good choice and now that the movie is here would be a perfect combo for book/movie discussion. Maybe I'll toss it out there as a special discussion early fall.