Picoult, Jodi. Handle with Care. Atria, 2009. ISBN 978-0743296410 496 pp. $27.95
Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe’s daughter Willow is born with Oesteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), a rare degenerative bone disease that makes her bones brittle. By age 6, Willow has suffered over 60 fractures. On a family vacation to Disney World, before they even get to the parks, Willow slips on a napkin and is rushed to a local ER, where the staff don’t believe she has IO. The parents are taken into police custody and Amelia, Charlotte’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship, is too flustered to properly explain how her younger sister fell.
The situation is quickly clearly up with a call from Willow’s doctor, but policeman Sean wants someone to pay. The lawyer the family visits says they don’t have case, but suggests a wrongful birth suit–implying that if Charlotte had known that her baby would not be healthy and would require daily care and financially exhaustive medical costs, she would have opted to abort the fetus. A twist: Piper, the midwife who missed the OI diagnose happens to be Charlotte’s best friend; Sean doesn’t agree they should litigate. Marin, the lawyer who takes the case, is adopted and seeking her birth mother, and brings another dimension to the “keep or give up your unwanted child” debate that is central to the novel.
Picoult is a masterful storyteller. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, represented by varying typefaces: Charlotte, Sean, Amelia, and Marin all get their say, speaking as if they are relaying the events of the suit to Willow. The narrative is interspersed with recipes; Charlotte’s former career (before becoming Willow’s full-time caretaker) was a pastry chef, and she explains a variety of baking terms (tempering, proofing, weeping) that are metaphors for the action taking place within the story. Her handle on courtroom procedures and deftness with medical explanations adds authenticity to the story. The issues are meaty, the pacing is perfect; the action is suspenseful.
This was a compelling, richly layered unputdownable read. The gift of the magi styled ending evoked a strong evisceral reaction, but that’s typical of me & Picoult: I get to the last 10 pages and want to hurl the book across the room, even as I admire the author for not ending her novels in a predictable, or even fair, way.