Handle with Care, by Jodi Picoult

Warning: Handle with Care is a recently published book, and there are spoilers below.

It took me longer than I expected to get through Handle with Care.  I’ve enjoyed the other two books of hers that I’ve read (My Sister’s Keeper and Nineteen Minutes), even if I couldn’t get through an audio book of The Tenth Circle.  Plus, my sister became almost instantly absorbed in Handle with Care, and any book that can hook my sister that quickly must be worth reading. And it was worth reading, I don’t want to say that it wasn’t. But as I told my sister, it was frustrating and sad – and since I’m also trying to read The Princes in the Tower, which makes me frustrated and angry, it was possibly more harrowing than it needed to be.

It was plenty harrowing, too. Another reason that I had a problem getting through it was because, for most of the story, I had very little sympathy with Charlotte. I understood the instinct behind Charlotte and Sean’s initial visit to the lawyer, and I understood to some extent why she followed through on the wrongful birth suit. But I found her incredibly unsympathetic for about two-thirds of the book.

She was so victimized, by herself. She focused so much on what couldn’t happen – what Willow couldn’t do, what she couldn’t do because of Willow, that she lost sight of what she could do. It is not a coincidence that she became a lot more likeable, and happier as a character even in the midst of the chaos that she created, when she started being proactive rather than reactive – when she started baking, and when they went to the conference in Omaha.

I don’t want to diminish the difficulty of raising a child with disabilities, either physical or mental. It is incredibly difficult and expensive, and of course no one knows how they will react to a situation until they are faced with it. But filing a lawsuit like that is not proactive, it’s reactive. It’s mercenary.

I almost think I would have liked her better if it had been a more clearly mercenary motivation. Of course, then she wouldn’t have had the revelation at the end that she was being totally selfish (something that everyone else, including me, had realized long ago). But if they had really exhausted all of their financial resources, if they’d done all of the fund-raising possible, if she’d been baking as much as possible and selling it and it still wasn’t enough, then I would have had more sympathy with the suit. But, as Charlotte realized near the end of the trial, she was doing it for herself. She was doing it to get some kind of recognition that her life was hard, harder than she’d expected and harder than she’d wanted. And that’s what I didn’t like about her for a lot of the book – that sense of victimization, of needing public acknowledgement of her victimization.  And, as I said above, I liked her a lot more when she wasn’t focused on that, and at the end when she was finally honest about her motivations.

She was just so miserable for the first part, and behaving miserably. She was self-isolated for so long, buried in her sense of “my life is hard” that she didn’t even consider seeking out support, and blew off the support that she did have. It is almost unforgivable that she didn’t discuss even the possibility of the suit with Piper, that she blindsided her like that. It is also almost unforgivable the way that she refused to listen to Sean and discuss the suit with him, and just continued on blindly, trying to convince herself that she was doing the right thing. I can understand, given her behavior through the rest of the book, how she completely ignored all the signs of Amelia’s problems, but I don’t like her for it.  In fact, most of her behavior I can understand but just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you agree with it, approve of it, or like it.

But she is, of course, only one character. The major character, sure, but only one. And I really liked Piper, and Amelia (I had a lot of sympathy for Amelia) and Sean and Willow – although there wasn’t a whole lot of Willow until the horrifically sad ending; she was mostly there for the suit to revolve around. And Marin, as we got more involved in her story.  (How heartbreaking was her birth mother’s reveal?)

I think I felt the most for Amelia. She’s trapped by these events. She has no control over them and yet they have a profoundly negative impact on her in the way that only teenagers can be affected by these things. She’s intelligent and intuitive and exerts control over her life in the only way that she can. Most stroppy teenagers are tiresome, because there’s no rationale other than their being teenagers. With Amelia, there is a definite catalyst for these things beyond puberty – and she recognizes that but doesn’t have the self-control, or in some ways the desire, to stop it.  And then you add the element of “survivor’s guilt” – in this case, guilt about being healthy when Willow isn’t, and being upset about the things in her life when Willow has even less control and even more pain, and specific guilt about forgetting the letter at the beginning – to the chaos of puberty and the lawsuit and the ramifications from that, and it’s really no wonder that she acts out the way she does.

As a book, it’s really well done. Once I realized what it was that was upsetting me the most, and once I stopped reading it in short bursts, I raced through to the end – and was devastated, of course, by the ending that was horribly reminiscent of My Sister’s Keeper. There was one aspect, in retrospect, that was touched on but not really developed, and that was the abortion argument. There were a few hints that Charlotte, despite being a Catholic, wasn’t absolutely opposed to abortion, and that part of her mentality was not explored in as much depth as the social and emotional and familial ramifications of the lawsuit itself. But that’s my only quibble with the writing, and it’s entirely likely that if it had been included, it would have come across as preachy or made the book too emotionally busy and I’d be complaining about its inclusion instead.

It’s more My Sister’s Keeper than Nineteen Minutes, if that gives it any context. Those being the only other Jodi Picoult books that I’ve read so far, those are the only ones I can compare it to. She’s definitely an author that I will pick up again. Just not until I’ve recovered from this one.

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