Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Jodi Picoult - Handle With Care

I have a policy about Jodi Picoult books. I cannot start one after 6pm.

I did once. It was Christmas Day, and I'd finished my first Christmas book. I started a Jodi Picoult in the evening and finished it at 3.30 am. I couldn't put it down.

Since then, I have learned my lesson. This woman's books are like crack to me.

The first one I read was My Sister's Keeper, probably Picoult's most famous book. It's about Anna, a 'designer baby' - her parents deliberately created a perfect genetic match for their elder daughter, suffering from leaukemia, so that Anna could donate cells for a transplant. They'd wanted another child anyway, they just made sure they had the right child. Except it didn't stop there, and now after a childhood of medical procedures, Anna is thirteen and she's been asked to donate a kidney. So, like any sensible teenager, she sues her parents for medical emancipation.

Picoult's signature style is alternating first-person point of view. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, so the reader can spend time in every head, and ultimately - when she's successful - sympathise with every character and see every perspective. This is why her books are addictive for me - I find myself empathising with everyone, but they can't all get what they want.

Handle With Care is told the same way, and in many ways it is very similar to My Sister's Keeper. Charlotte O'Keefe's youngest daughter has OI, a form of brittle bone disease, and requires constant care, which is draining her familiy's finances and energy. Charlotte is offered the chance to sue her obstetrician and potentially win enough money to set her daughter up with care for life, but there's a problem - the obstetrician is her best friend, and the lawsuit hinges on Charlotte swearing in court that she would have aborted her baby had she known about her condition. Like My Sister's Keeper, it's about who has the right to decide if a baby should be born, how much say should medical practitioners get, and what happens when a mother puts the wellbeing of her neediest child above that of the rest of her family.

The back cover copy for Handle With Care suggested to me that the main conflict was going to be the fact that Charlotte was suing her best friend (the annoyingly-named but likeable Piper). In fact, the main issue in the novel was how Charlotte's family dealt with her willingness to say that she would definitely have terminated her pregnancy had she known about her child's condition - especially since her child is a precocious six year old and understands that the lawsuit is about whether or not she should have been born. About whether or not she was wanted.

Picoult has posted a review on her website that contains the following line: "Picoult individualizes the alternating voices of the narrators more believably than she has previously" (from Publishers Weekly). I was surprised that she included a review that was implicitly critical of her other work (and I really like her for doing it), but this is a problem with Picoult's books - her characters can sound very similar. It was definitely less of an issue in this book, perhaps because everyone's goals were so different, but as a result I found it far harder to like Charlotte O'Keefe. She was one of the best-defined Picoult characters I've read, and also one of the least likeable.

I think this is a good thing. Although her ability to get into every head is admirable, and it is what makes her books so compelling, it did mean Picoult was a little short on folk I didn't like, and that can get wearing after a while. I'm liking her new ability to annoy me and look forward to seeing more of it.

One interesting twist that I thought she really nailed was how the O'Keefes' Catholicism impacted on their decisions. Living in Ireland, I have met many a la carte Catholics, which is *exactly* what the O'Keefes are. Sean O'Keefe consults his priest for advice, although he has already secretly decided on a course of action that he knows is against his faith. Charlotte goes to Mass every Sunday but will stand up in court and swear (under oath) she would have had an abortion, which is strictly forbidden by the Church. This didn't help with Charlotte's likeability as it did make her a bit of a hypocrite, but it is certainly realistic and effective.

She handles subplots very well too - there is a conflict in the family lawyer's private life that mirrors the main story thematically but otherwise has nothing to do with it. And it is a mark of her skill that even as I was unable to get my head out of Charlotte and Sean's life for more than the bare minimum amount of time needed to work, eat, sleep and shower, I didn't greet Marin's reappearance on the page with a deep sigh and some aggressive page-flicking.

This isn't my favourite of Picoult's books - Plain Truth and The Pact probably share the crown - but it shows definite growth as a writer in how she handles voice and how she creates characters that are compelling but could do with a smack in the gob. And every writer should have a few of those.

[This is my first book review. Please tell me what you'd like more or less of. Did I overdo the plot summary? And does this book review make my bum look big?]

12 comments:

  1. Hi

    I think this is a lovely review. You didn't give the plot away but fleshed out the main themes of Handle with Care, making me want to go to Waterstones to have a look at the back cover! And you certainly know your Picoult to be able to understand and convey a sense of her writing style.

    So no, it didn't make anything of you look big!

    One question tho: Who is Marin? (Sorry, I'm showing my ignorance not having read any Picoult!).

    Take care

    x

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  2. Oh, Marin is the family lawyer with the unrelated but thematically similar subplot :) Sorry, should have said that!

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  3. The fact that you stay up all night reading makes me want to add Jodi Picault to my list of authors to try. I haven't read anything by her, but now I will!

    And I gave you an award at my blog today. Come by and get it!

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  4. I have read two Picoult novels: My Sisters Keeper and Nineteen Minutes.

    My main problem with MSK is the mother. She is a truly hideous character and I felt no empathy for her whatsoever. NM, in my opinion, is a much better novel.

    I like Picoult's style of writing and the premise of her novels are really engaging. I liked your review of Handle With Care, Ellen, and I will now check it out :)

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  5. I enjoyed your review. I have read My Sisters Keeper and Plain Truth. I found Plain Truth very predictable. I wasn't half way through the book when I knew it was the mother. I agree with Donna's assessment of the mother in MSK. I found her manipulative. I will be on the look out for Handle With Care.

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  6. Would you believe I've never read any of her books. I do know who she is.. but .. I guess one day.

    Before night tho.

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  7. I wasn't crazy about the mother in MSK either, she was definitely my least favourite character, but I could empathise with her to some degree - I think she considered herself Kate's mother and no one else's. Not a very nice characteristic but I could sort of see where it came from.

    Ann, I did suspect the ending of Plain Truth but I just liked all the information about the Amish people so much. I have no idea how accurate it was. . . must add that to my 'must read more about' list :)

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  8. I started out liking MSK, but what killed it for me was that she seemed to give the reader no credit. Every single character, pretty much, had the Great Epiphany when they realise Sara is really in a pretty horrible dilemma. But you know what? I picked that up pretty quickly. I didn't need to be told it half a dozen times by different people. By the end I was muttering "Yes yes, conflicting maternal instincts, cannot act in best interests of both daughters yes we GET it already!"

    Which is a pity, because I probably would really have enjoyed it if she hadn't been so determined to make sure everyone appreciated the brilliant moral dilemma she'd come up with.

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  9. My Sister's Keeper was my first Picoult as well. I was surprised by how affecting I found it -- my roommate walked in and I was sitting there BAWLING at the end of the book, which she found quite alarming.

    Love the review, btw. I think it's very thoughtful, and I'd like to see more.

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  10. Charlotte, if that's the case, you won't like Handle With Care. The dilemma is similarly laboured. I love Picoult but she does tend to hammer things home too much and she's definitely still guilty of it in HWC.

    Guinevere, I was the same. The ending left me quite shell-shocked. It was very deus ex machina but it did surprise me all the same.

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  11. I liked this book review! And Jodi Picoult is addictive, but it worries me the extent to which the parents are so crazy in her books (and the ways it's excused or justified as being 'for the kids'). "...compelling but could do with a smack in the gob" is the right phrase for it.

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  12. Picoult's books always deal with moral issues and this one really got to me. As a mother, I was torn between what I feel is wrong (wrongful birth cases) and what I might do if I was in Charlotte O'Keefe's situation. And yes, this read along very much like My Sister's Keeper, but it's very good in it's own way.

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