Saturday, July 7, 2012

Handle with Care: A Book Review

From Picoult's website:
When Charlotte and Sean O’Keefe’s daughter, Willow, is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, they are devastated – she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain.
As the family struggles to make ends meet to cover Willow’s medical expenses, Charlotte thinks she has found an answer. If she files a wrongful birth lawsuit against her ob/gyn for not telling her in advance that her child would be born severely disabled, the monetary payouts might ensure a lifetime of care for Willow. But it means that Charlotte has to get up in a court of law and say in public that she would have terminated the pregnancy if she’d known about the disability in advance – words that her husband can’t abide, that Willow will hear, and that Charlotte cannot reconcile. And the ob/gyn she’s suing isn’t just her physician – it’s her best friend.
Each character in the book tells his or her version of the story to Willow. This format is nothing new to Picoult as she did something very similar in My Sister's Keeper. In fact, those who are familiar with Picoult's books know that this story does not have a happy ending; her stories never do. (Note: Picoult's book, My Sister's Keeper, is vastly different from the movie, starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin.)

The book challenges me as a reader, a special education educator and as a Christian. Centered around the lawsuit is the question: How disabled is too disabled? In fact, Charlotte's lawyer brings up a question that is undoubtedly on most pro-lifer's minds:
"And it's a slippery slope - if an OB decides a kid with brittle bones shouldn't be born, what's next? A prenatal test for low IQ, so you can scrap the fetus that won't grow up and get into Harvard?" (page 53)

However, on the other side of the coin, Picoult addresses the physical, emotional and even financial implications of extreme disabilities:
"Your first seven breaks happened before you entered this world. The next four happened minutes after you were born, as a nurse lifted you out of me. Another nine, when you were being resuscitated in the hospital, after you coded. The tenth: when you were lying across my lap and suddenly I heard a pop. Eleven was when you rolled over and your arm hit the edge of the crib. Twelve and thirteen were femur fractures; fourteen a tibia; fifteen a compression fracture of the spine. Sixteen was jumping down from a stoop; seventeen was a kid crashing into you on the playground; eighteen was when you slipped on a DVD jacket lying on the carpet. We still don't know what number nineteen. Twenty was when Amelia was jumping on a bed where you were sitting; twenty one was a soccer ball that hit your leg too hard; twenty-two was when I discovered water[proof casting materials and bought enough to supply and entire hospital, now stocked in my garage. Twenty-three happened in your sleep; twenty-four and twenty-five were a fall forward in the snow that snapped both forearms at once. Twenty-six and twenty-seven were nasty fractures, fibula and tibia tenting through the skin at a nursery school Halloween party, where ironically, you were wearing a mummy's costume whose bandages I used to splint the breaks. Twenty-eight happened during a sneeze; twenty-nine and thirty were ribs you broke on the edge of the kitchen table. Thirty-one was a hip fracture that required a metal plate and six screws. I stopped keeping track after that, until the ones from Disney World, which we had not numbered but instead named Mickey, Donald, and Goofy." (page 105)

If you're looking for answers, this book will not provide it. Instead, it will give you a million more questions to consider. I get very wrapped up in books to the point of rooting for a character or absolutely despising them. I think Picoult is brave for writing her characters in such a way that you can hate them (or love them) in one chapter and feel the reverse in the next. Charlotte is this type of character for me. I'm sure it's not a coincidence that the character I struggled the most with emotionally was the mother.

One thing I did notice in Handle With Care, was that it was very similar to My Sister's Keeper. The characters "felt" the same. Both moms were overbearing to a fault, the dads were trying to be the "good guys", and the siblings got lost in the shuffle and exhibited self-destructive behavior. Because of this, I knew that the ending wasn't going to be happy and it wasn't.

Picoult is to books what M. Knight Shyamalan is to movies; all of her books have huge plot twists - none of them particularly happy. In fact, I've found, that most of her books leave me feeling frustrated. "Can she write a happy ending just once?"

No. Because that's not the kind of writer she is and I think that is part of her charm. People pick up her reads to be challenged and I think part of the reason why Picoult never sums up her books with a "buttoned up and beautiful" mentality is because that's not real life. Storybook fairy tales do not exist. Yes, there are magical moments to be gleaned from the every day, but there is no palace, princesses, and knight in shining armor.

As always, I would recommend Picoult's books. In face, I'm heading to the library this morning to pick up another. I'm a glutton for punishment.

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