If you love your child, is there ever such a thing as "wrongful birth"? What if, by claiming so, you could provide a secure future for the child? But what if, by claiming so, you caused irreparable harm to your every relationship?
Posing these issues in her new novel "Handle With Care" (Atria, 477 pages, $27.95), Jodi Picoult turns to her well-traveled themes of thorny moral, ethical and legal matters, with a dash of motherhood and (literally) apple pie thrown in. At the center is Willow O'Keefe, a 6-year-old trapped in a tiny, broken body, the result of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle-bone disease. Her care has consumed her parents, Charlotte and Sean -- but mostly Charlotte, whose vision of unlimited money to provide a near-normal life for her daughter prompts her to sue her obstetrician, who just happens to be her best friend, for malpractice.
There is much hand-wringing over the suit's implications by the O'Keefes, the friend/doctor and even Charlotte's lawyer, revealed in alternating first-person narratives (another Picoult favorite). This device, however, proves flawed in that Picoult seems to forget that each account is addressed to Willow. She throws in a "you" every once in awhile, and we're jarringly reminded that the "you" is a 6-year-old girl -- rendering the occasional obscenity and the depictions of lust and marital rape, among other very adult concerns, quite unseemly.
And we don't hear from Willow, whom we are repeatedly told is a delightful child who reads at a sixth-grade level and is given to such pronouncements as "Your thumb is the same length as your nose" and "Three Mile Island is actually only two-and-a-half miles long," until the very end, shunting the purported heart of the novel to the margins. Much more alive, and the only truly sympathetic character, is the O'Keefes' 13-year-old daughter, Amelia, a girl so scarred by the disabled-sibling syndrome that she turns to shoplifting, cutting and bulimia. She gets her turn to speak, as well, and just when we think we can't stand this brat any longer, her story takes several heartbreaking turns.
"Handle With Care" is overlong, and a little precious in its inclusion of recipes (references to Charlotte's former life as a pastry chef) that are meant to reflect the moods of the day. A subplot involving the lawyer's search for her birth mother feels mightily contrived, especially its denouement. And there is technical resolution but no real satisfaction for the burning questions Picoult has spent 477 pages agonizing over. In spite of all this overwrought exposition, however, readers are likely to find themselves caring deeply about this family, and pondering these burning questions themselves.
Cynthia Dickison is a features designer at the Star Tribune.