About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

#98 - Handle with Care

Back again to the same small-town New Hampshire of The Pilot's Wife for my 98th book of the year: Handle with Care, by Jodi Picoult (Atria Books, 2009). As Sean, one of the principals, reminds us, and as Picoult's earlier novels have illustrated, "every sleepy picture-postcard New England town [has] a split personality." This time, what's lurking beneath the surface is a severely disabled child; six-year-old Willow O'Keefe has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI, for short), or brittle bone disease. By the time the story begins, she's suffered 52 broken bones -- the first 7 in utero. As her mother, Charlotte, recounts:
"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 a playground; eighteen was when you slipped on a DVD jacket lying on the carpet. We still don't know what caused number nineteen. Twenty was when Amelia was jumping on a bed where you were sitting; twenty-one was a soccer ball that hit your left leg too hard; twenty-two was when I discovered waterproof casting materials and bought enough to supply an 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."
Clearly, not an ordinary childhood. Nonetheless, Willow is a smart, funny, engaging child, albeit a diminutive one; her parents, Charlotte and Sean, adore her; and her sister Amelia ... well, what are siblings for?

Things begin to change in the second chapter, when the O'Keefes depart New Hampshire for an almost-unheard of trip to Disney World. Minutes after entering the Magic Kingdom, Willow slips in an ice cream shop and suffers yet another three fractures, which land her in the nearest emergency room. Since the all-important letter from her doctor explaining her condition was left at home, the numerous prior breaks revealed by her X-ray raise some eyebrows -- enough so that Sean and Charlotte are held and questioned by the police, and Amelia is whisked away to a temporary foster home. While their ordeal lasts only a night, Sean is enraged, and returns home determined to sue everyone he can -- WDW, the hospital, the local social services agency -- for how the family was treated.

Their first attorney's visit starts the family down a long, tortured road. While they don't appear to have a strong case against Disney World or the hospital, their lawyer suggests a different, potentially lucrative avenue: a wrongful birth suit. Simply put, this would blame the doctor for failing to diagnose Willow's illness earlier, before she was born, and thus giving the O'Keefes the option of an abortion. Never mind that Sean and Charlotte desparately wanted this child they took so long to conceive; that they're devout Catholics who oppose abortion in general; that the doctor in question is Charlotte's best friend, Piper; or that this means standing before a court saying their daughter should never have been born. Charlotte, seeing only the opportunity to secure enough money to ensure a lifetime of comfort for Willow -- well-sized wheelchairs, adapted vehicles, OI camps -- signs on. Sean does not, and in fact, after the first article about the case hits the press, signs on as a witness for the defense.

And so begins a harrowing journey. In typical Picoult fashion, the tale is told from several different characters' perspectives, each represented by a different font: Charlotte, Sean, Amelia, Piper, and Marin Gates, the attorney who represents the O'Keefes in their suit. Unsurprisingly, the strain and publicity around a lawsuit that pits Charlotte and Sean against each other takes its toll on their marriage; by the midpoint of the book, Sean has moved from bedroom to couch to local motel, and ultimately files for divorce.

Piper, likewise, is devastated, both personally and professionally. While her initial reaction is relatively sanguine ("On some level, I'd known that my lack of lawsuits was sheer luck -- that it would happen sooner or later.), this changes once she realizes exactly who is suing her:
"Which disaster had precipitated this? My eyes scanned to the top of the page again, reading the plaintiffs' names, which I'd somehow missed the first time around.


"Suddenly I couldn't see. The space between my eyes and the paper was washed red, like the blood that was pounding so loudly in my ears that I did not hear a nurse ask if I was all right. I staggered down the hall to the first door I could find -- into a supply closet filled with gauze and linens.

"My best friend was suing me for medical malpractice.

"For wrongful birth.

"For not telling her earlier about your disease, so that she would have had the chance to abort the child she'd begged me to help her conceive."
For Marin, the case comes at a personal crossroads. In the midst of a search for the birth mother who gave her up for adoption as a newborn, she struggles to reconcile her professional obligations with her personal knowledge if what it's like to grow up knowing your parents didn't want you.

Perhaps most poignant is Amelia's story. From the get-go, it's clear that she's lived most of her twelve years in the shadow of Willow's illness. As she explains in her first chapter,
"Pick ten strangers and stick them in a room, and ask them which one of us they feel sorrier for -- you or me -- and we all know who they'll choose. It's kind of hard to look past your casts, and the fact that you're the size of a two-year-old, even though you're five; and the funny twitch of your hips when you're healthy enough to walk. I'm not saying that you've had it easy. It's just that I have it worse, because every time I think my life sucks, I look at you and hate myself even more for thinking that my life sucks in the first place.

"Here's a snapshot of what it's like to be me:

"Amelia, don't jump on the bed, you'll hurt Willow.

"Amelia, how many times have I told you not to leave your socks on the floor, because Willow could trip over them?

"Amelia, turn off the TV
(although I've only watched a half-hour, and you've been staring at it like a zombie for five hours straight).

"I know how selfish this makes me sound, but then again, knowing something's true doesn't keep you from feeling it. And I may only be twelve, but believe me, that's long enough to know that our family isn't the same as other families, and never will be. Case in point: What family packs a whole extra suitcase full of Ace bandages and waterproof casts, just in case? What mom spends days researching the hospitals in Orlando?"
For her, the lawsuit means not only the breakup of her family, but the loss of her best friend (Piper's daughter Emma), and a painful ostracism at school. She responds with numbness and self-loathing, turning to bulimia, cutting, and shoplifting in an effort to at least feel something.

Charlotte is also a professional baker, and the novel is interspersed with her recipes -- each of which, in some way, relates back to what's currently going on in the story. For example, a recipe for divinity precedes one of Sean and Charlotte's earlier arguments about whether to proceed with the lawsuit, and includes the following notes:
"Hardball: one of the stages of sugar syrup in the preparation of candy, which occurs at 250 to 266 degrees Farenheit. ... It's ready if it forms a hard ball that doesn't flatten when fished out but whose shape can still be changed with significant pressure. Which, of course, leads to the more colloquial definition of hardball: ruthless, aggressive, competitive behavior; the kind that's designed to mold someone else's thinking to match your own."
I always think that I should look down on an author as prolific and popular as Picoult, but I just can't bring myself to do it; yeah, her books regularly make the bestseller list, but she tells a good story. She has a knack of drawing you into both (or all) sides of complicated, painful questions and convincing you that there really is no easy answer. Her usual ending-with-a-twist is in evidence here, too, and while I'm not particularly thrilled with this one, I enjoyed the rest of the book enough that I'm willing to pretend that last, short chapter just wasn't there.

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