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Monday, March 09, 2009

Shades of Grey Color Me Disappointed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult tackles the tough stuff - she's taken on the death penalty, euthanasia, rape, sexual abuse, school shootings and much more. In fact, it's become her M.O. to take a controversial subject; explore it from every angle using real, sympathetic characters; then leave the reader to come to his/her own conclusion about the topic under scrutiny. This is why I love Picoult so much. She makes me think. She makes me question. She forces me to feel for her people even when I find their actions morally repugnant. Even though her books rarely change my mind about an issue, they definitely make me more empathetic.

Her newest, Handle With Care, follows the Picoult pattern. It concerns Charlotte O'Keefe, whose youngest daughter Willow was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (also known as brittle bone disease). Although Charlotte adores her daughter, Willow's condition makes life difficult - because the 6-year-old's bones break so easily, the O'Keefe's are constantly in and out of the hospital. Even with insurance coverage, the medical bills are astronomical. Charlotte works full-time as Willow's caregiver, and her policeman husband takes on extra shifts to help pay for specially-made car seats, wheelchairs, pillows and leg braces. Despite all the pain associated with OI, Willow's a bright spot in the O'Keefe's world, with her patience and sunny outlook. In stark contrast is Amelia, the O'Keefe's older daughter. Although she's fiercely protective of her sister, Amelia's growing resentful, too - after all, the family can't go anywhere or do anything without worrying that Willow's going to trip on a napkin and end up in the E.R.

After a disastrous trip to Disney World, the family ends up in the law offices of Robert Ramirez, determined to sue everyone from the park's director to Mickey Mouse. Ramirez helps them see the futility of their case, but offers another possibility: What if their OB/GYN could have diagnosed Willow's OI sooner? If the O'Keefes can convince a jury they would have aborted their daughter had they known about her condition, they could be awarded millions of dollars in damages. Instantly, they see what the money could mean: a new wheelchair; a minivan from the 21st Century; OI camp; a future for Willow. The flip side's a little murkier - bringing a wrongful birth suit against the OB/GYN will require Charlotte to betray her best friend, perhaps ruin her career. It will also mean admitting on the stand - in front of her husband, daughters and the media - that she wishes her child had never been born. But the money means a brighter future for Willow, and Charlotte's willing to do anything - anything - to provide for her youngest. As the months march on, Charlotte must decide just how much she's willing to risk for the lawsuit. Can she sacrifice her privacy? Her best friend? Her marriage? How about the very child she's trying to protect? How far will she go to get the money that could change her daughter's life forever?

Handle With Care asks some tough questions: Do parents have the right to terminate a pregnancy if they know the baby will be born with disabilities? Should physicians even offer abortion as a possible "solution?" What constitutes a life worth living? How can parents of children with severe disabilities cope financially and emotionally? Are the sacrifices these parents and families have to make worth it? In the book, shades of grey color each of these ideas. For me, though, the issues at hand are very black and white, which is probably why I didn't enjoy this book as much as previous Picoults. I empathized with Charlotte, but I found her motives suspect from the beginning. Thus, I found myself thinking, "This lawsuit is ridiculous. Why is it still going on?" It bugged me through the whole book (since the whole book is about the lawsuit).

Still, I've said this once and I'll say it again, Jodi Picoult on her worst day writes better than many authors on their best. Like all her other books, Handle With Care rivets the reader to the page. Her characters are complex, skillfully-drawn individuals. Her plots are taut and fast-paced. So, despite my misgivings about Charlotte and her lawsuit, I still raced through this book, anxious to know what was going to happen to the O'Keefes. Which brings me to the novel's ending. I've read enough Picoult (like every book she's ever written) to see what was coming, but that doesn't mean I liked it. In fact, I'm still bugged by the ending. Grrr. I hate that. I firmly believe a book should be resolved to my satisfaction before it ends.

So, yeah. I love Jodi Picoult for so many reasons, but I'm a little ambivalent about her newest venture. The whole idea of a mother aborting her baby simply because the fetus shows signs of disability angers me, so much so that I couldn't identify with Charlotte. I felt for her, but I didn't identify with her. I didn't like her either, but that's beside the point; because I couldn't identify with her, I didn't connect with her, and that soured the story for me. Otherwise, it's vintage Picoult - solid characters; compelling topic; fast, well-constructed plot. A page-turner, for sure. I just wish I connected with it a little more. Soooo, I'm not taking Picoult off my "Favorite Authors" list just yet - I'm just hoping for better from this talented novelist.

Grade: B


  1. I love Picoult's stuff too. I have "Nineteen Minutes" on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Thanks for the review - despite the lower grade (although still passing!) I think I'll try it out.

  2. I really love Picoult's earlier novels but her last few have really disappointed me - having said that, I still keep reading them so there must be something there to keep me coming back!

  3. I'm disappointed in the premise of this novel as well. I'm not an avid Picoult fan, but I have read and appreciated her work in the past. (Though I thought the ending of My Sister's Keeper was a complete cop-out and it bothers me to this day.)

    There's no way I could feel connected to a character that could abort a baby, simply because he/she was supposed to be born with a disability or defect. I would probably be to upset to finish the book...

  4. I wasn't crazy about the last couple books by fact I didn't finish them...I guess I like her older stuff better. I am curious about this one though and have been anticipating the reviews so I thank you for yours. I can see why the premise of this book would have troubled you.

  5. I'm also a HUGE PIcoult fan, driving 4 hours for one of her appearances and to have her sign my copy of Handle with Care. I loved the book too, but was upset at the ending. It was shocking but at the same time I felt like I should have seen it coming.


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