What will you do if your child is so fragile she can break her bones while she’s sleeping? How will you take care of your little one who can suffer fractures due to a mere sneeze? These are the everyday dilemmas that Charlotte and Sean O’ Keefe face about their daughter Willow. In “Handle with Care,” Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite authors, took me once again into a journey involving sensitive and moral issues that can make or break a family.
After reading this book, I had to pause and psych myself to detach my emotions from the characters I’ve grown to love. It had that rare grip on me as a reader. I have to agree with Stephen King on this. This is Picoult’s best novel by far since “My Sister’s Keeper.” Here’s what he has to say:
“You men out there who think Ms. Picoult is a chick thing need to get with the program. Her books are an everyone thing, and the current offering — about a little girl whose bones are so brittle that they break almost at a puff of wind — is her best since My Sister’s Keeper. It’s a legal/medical thriller, but at bottom it’s a story about the American heart of darkness: a small-town marriage under stress. Picoult writes with unassuming brilliance and never descends into soap opera.”
Willow was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) or the brittle bone disease. Despite being extremely fragile, Willow was a genius. She loves blurting out trivia every now and then. She reads during her recovery period after a bone break. Her personality more than compensates for her sickness.
To give you an idea on how fragile Willow is, here’s an excerpt from Charlotte’s narration:
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 where femur fractures; fourteen a tibia; fifteen a compression fracture of the spine…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-eight happened during a sneeze; twenty-nine and thirty were ribs you broke on the edge of the kitchen table.
Charlotte and Sean O’ Keefe were the most dutiful parents Willow could ever have. Charlotte had to give up being a pastry chef just to take care of her while Sean had to work double shifts as a police officer to pay for their insurmountable medical bills. Aside from her parents, Willow had a stepsister Amanda, who despite being helpful, had secret struggles of her own.
Their trip to Disney World was the turning point of the story. Willow slipped inside an ice-cream parlor and broke both her femurs severely which could lead to internal bleeding. The family didn’t even make it inside Disney World, they all went to the hospital to rush Willow. Upon arriving at the emergency room, Charlotte asked Amelia if she brought the letter. Whenever the O’ Keefes go out they bring the letter from Willow’s doctor saying that she had OI. Unfortunately, Amelia forgot. She got overwhelmed with excitement that she forgot to get the letter Charlotte asked for. This mistake led to the arrest of their parents for being suspects of child abuse.
A lot of people are not aware of OI which is the very reason why they had to bring the letter all the time. Willow’s doctor could not be reached by the hospital and so the social welfare had no choice but to put Amelia in protective custody and Willow in hospital arrest while their parents were in jail. They were eventually released and the family went home but Willow was placed in a spica cast for four months which made it impossible for her to move on her own.
Coming back from Florida, Charlotte consulted a law firm so they could sue the people who harassed them and took their kids in custody. Basically, all she wanted was to be paid financially for the damages they incurred during their stay there not to mention the embarrassment they experienced. After much interrogation, the lawyer said they have no case against the people in Disney World or the hospital. However, they can have another case that can give them huge financial gain. They can file for a wrongful birth lawsuit.
A wrongful birth lawsuit implies that if the mother had known during her pregnancy that her child was going to be significantly impaired, she would have chosen to abort the fetus. It’s a medical malpractice suit that can be filed against the ob-gyn for failing to disclose the condition of the child. Winning this whopping $8-million lawsuit would mean a lifetime of comfortable living for Willow. This would’ve been easy for Charlotte if this did not entail two things: declaring publicly that she would’ve aborted Willow had she known her condition AND suing her ob-gyn who was her best friend.
This novel is a web of questionable medical ethics, conflict of interests, moral obligations, unspoken truths, and dubious motives held together by a mother’s unwavering love for her child. Every part of this novel is believable. I understand how enticing it is to have the future of your child secure and I also know how gut wrenching it is to lie in front of your own child. You’ll discover in this novel how this situation affected all the members of the O’ Keefe family as it was told by each member of the family including Piper, Charlotte’s best friend. Big decisions such as this can make or break a marriage, a friendship, and an entire family.
I love the way Jodi Picoult made the tension so gripping and the emotions of the characters so riveting without coming across as sappy. I wanted to jump inside the pages of the book and scream at Charlotte. I wanted to shield Willow from all the pain. I wanted to tell Sean to control his wife. I wanted to tell Piper to just loan Charlotte money. A good novel makes you want to meddle with the story and be involved in the conflicts set before you.
This book has its shortcomings, too. The recipes in some of Charlotte’s chapters were distracting for me. Although I understand that she’s a pastry chef, I was more eager to move on with the story instead of reading recipes. However, I know that readers who love to cook will love those parts. I had mixed emotions about the ending. It got me thinking for a while and so many questions lingered in my head.
Overall, this is a book that has the right amount of everything. Picoult knows when to pull back when the plot thickens too much. She can put your emotions in a situation that you find yourself becoming so fragile like Willow who can break at any given time. It’s too good to put down once you started it. So if you’re looking for a book that will shake you to the core, then open your doors to the O’ Keefe family…but you have to handle them with care.