Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Handle with Care

I find it an interesting juxtaposition that my review of Jodi Picoult's Handle with Care comes right after my commentary on the Battlestar Galactica finale, for reasons I think will become obvious. Please note that there will be detailed spoilers after the cut, not only for Handle with Care, but also for Picoult's earlier novel, My Sister's Keeper, and for Battlestar Galactica.

Judging by the numbers on LibraryThing, I'm not the only one who thinks that My Sister's Keeper has been Jodi Picoult's most significant work to date. As of this writing, there are 7,357 copies of the book cataloged on Library Thing, with an average rating of 4.12 out of 5 stars. The next closest book is Nineteen Minutes with 3,531 copies and a 4.04 rating, which is quite a difference. Of course, Handle with Care has only been out a matter of weeks, so it can't fairly be compared on the numbers with My Sister's Keeper. But I can and will compare it in another way; the success or failure of its ending, and the trust that readers place in authors, or television show creators.

I hope you'll forgive me in advance, because this review is going to meander all over the place. I'll start with Battlestar Galactica, which just recently ended a four-year run with a the explanation that God was behind all the mysterious happenings and prophecies and unexplained phenomena. Viewers have been vigorously debating the ending ever since, because science fiction fans generally do not like divine explanations for their plots. Many have referenced the term deus ex machina, one meaning of which is a plot device that does not follow from before, but is rather whipped out by the author at the last minute in an effort to sew things up.

While I certainly prefer scientific explanations myself, and am in fact an atheist, I didn't feel "cheated" by Battlestar Galactica's ending, as so many fans did. I felt that the show's creators had made it pretty obvious all along that a divine explanation was a definite possibility, because the characters constantly expressed their thoughts and speculations as to whether or not God (or the gods) was interfering. To me, it was not a deus ex machina because it didn't come out of nowhere. I also didn't feel personally betrayed by the show's creators. It may not have been the story as I would have chosen to tell it, but I didn't feel as though I had been manipulated under false pretenses.

So how does this relate to Jodi Picoult? Well, even though My Sister's Keeper seems to be her most popular book, many readers felt cheated by the ending. Not in a deus ex machina way, exactly, but because they felt the ending was contrived, unrealistic, and emotionally manipulative.

My Sister's Keeper centers around Anna, a 12 or 13 year old (if I recall correctly) girl who knows she was conceived to provide stem cell donor material for her older sister Kate, who has leukemia. It didn't end there, however; Kate subsequently needed bone marrow from Anna, and now needs a kidney. But Anna engages a lawyer to sue for medical emancipation from her parents, so that she can make her own medical decisions. This type of premise is exactly where Jodi Picoult's strength lies: she chooses hot-button topics (other books have covered parental kidnapping, school shootings, and date rape), and she really makes the reader consider all possible sides of the story. She also creates beautifully layered characters, in this case by giving us first-person chapters by everyone except Kate. I was completely enthralled with this book.

And then came the ending. A nice twist that worked well was that Kate was the one who urged Anna to instigate the lawsuit in the first place. It was a little contrived that readers didn't learn this until the end of the trial, because Anna had been relating large parts of the story, and obviously she knew but conveniently didn't tell us. But that's not what readers objected to. Most readers probably expected, and would have been happy with the ending, if Anna won the lawsuit and then chose to donate a kidney to Kate. Instead, Anna wins the lawsuit and then is killed in a car crash on the way home from the trial. She arrives brain-dead at the hospital where Kate lays dying, and her lawyer, who now has the right to make medical decisions concerning Anna, gives permission for the doctors to give Anna's kidney to Kate.

This is extremely contrived. What are the odds that a young girl, who minutes before won the right to choose whether or not to be a living donor, would get killed in a car accident just then? And that she would be brain dead but with her organs perfectly intact? It's not only contrived, it's emotionally manipulative because the reader has already been through the wringer with this family. In a way, it's like the author saying "Ha! I still surprised you! You thought you were safe!"

But to be honest, I didn't really mind too much. While I absolutely recognized the contrivance, I loved the poignancy of Kate's epilogue several years later, which is the first time we hear her voice in the story. It let us see that Kate has survived into adulthood against the odds, and that she feels Anna's absence like a missing limb, even years later. In other words, I was willing to forgive Jodi Picoult for being so manipulative because I found a poetic symmetry and tragic beauty in what happened, and also because I knew Anna was selfless enough to want to give Kate her kidney. She just didn't want to be forced to do it against Kate's wishes.

And now we come to Handle with Care.

Part of the problem is that Picoult has found a formula that works for her, and she is duplicating it to the point that long-time Picoult readers can predict most of her books' endings with a great degree of accuracy. In Handle with Care, Charlotte sues her obstetrician -- who is also her best friend -- in a wrongful birth lawsuit, because her younger daughter, Willow, has osteogenesis imperfecta, which means a lifetime of disability, pain, and broken bones, with all the resulting medical bills. Charlotte is desperate for money to provide Willow with the ability to survive into adulthood with some quality of life, and if that means lying and saying she would have aborted the fetus if her obstetrician had recognized the condition, she'll do it.

There are many parallels to My Sister's Keeper. Two sisters, one healthy and one ill. The lengths to which a parent will go to protect a child. The effect of a child's serious illness on the other siblings. The strain on the marriage. Lots of unlikely coincidences that show up in the placement and dealings of minor characters. Chapters alternating by character viewpoint -- although in Handle with Care Picoult uses the odd convention of having each character addressing his/her words directly to Willow, to the point of saying when "you" did this and when "you" did that.

And the ultimate parallel: the contrived, manipulative ending. Things look like they'll be okay: Charlotte wins the lawsuit, even though her husband Sean testifies for the other side, because he can't bear to have it publicly stated that they'd be better off if Willow had never been born. They are awarded $8 million, Charlotte and Sean reconcile, Willow's older sister Amelia finally starts dealing with her bulimia and cutting, and the family now has a financial cushion for future medical needs, even though they haven't cashed the check yet. So what happens? Willow, who has always envied Amelia's ability to ice skate, crawls out on the frozen pond near their house, falls through, and drowns. You have got to be kidding me.

As with Kate in My Sister's Keeper, this is the first time we hear Willow's own voice, but it doesn't quite make sense in this case because she's alone when she dies, so who is recording these thoughts for us? I can overlook that, but I'm not sure I can forgive Picoult for choosing this ending in the first place. It's beautifully written, with Willow's metaphoric thoughts (ice breaking, instead of her bones this time) and lack of regret. But for me, there is no symmetry or necessity. All it does is heap further suffering on a family that has already been through so much, and on the reader who is experiencing it all vicariously.

And I don't find it at all realistic. Willow is six but reads voraciously, on a sixth-grade level. Did she really not know that the ice in ponds can break? I imagine we're supposed to believe that Willow was so limited in her activity that it never occurred to anyone to tell her the ice itself was treacherous, as opposed to her falling on ice and breaking her bones. What, did she never hear the parents tell Amelia not to skate on the pond unless they'd checked the ice first? I think we're also supposed to be touched that Charlotte tucks the $8 million check into the lining of Willow's casket without cashing it, because in her mind, that money was for Willow. Yes, poetic, Charlotte, but how about giving that money to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation? And again, how about some realism? Would the insurance company not wonder why the check wasn't cashed? They can reissue the check, so Charlotte's action isn't "final" anyway. Besides, an $8 million award doesn't mean an $8 million check -- the prosecuting law firm takes its cut out before the client sees anything. Yes, I'm nitpicking now, but that's how much Picoult annoyed me this time around. I mean, it's not as though we were expecting Willow to be cured by an act of God, or a televangelist! Can this writer give us anything?

OK, deep breath while I get a hold of myself. There is much more, good and bad, that can be said about Handle with Care, and it doesn't always have to be in comparison to My Sister's Keeper. For instance, I liked Willow as a character. I learned a lot about osteogenesis imperfecta. I saw many sides of the "wrongful birth" issue -- not the least of which is that others with the same disease felt as if they were being told they all should have been aborted. I was truly touched when Charlotte took Willow to an osteogenesis imperfecta convention and they interacted with others affected by this disease for the first time. I sympathized with Charlotte, and with Piper the obstetrician. I enjoyed the metaphorical use of recipes throughout the book -- before Willow, Charlotte was a pastry chef, and she equates many baking terms with what is happening in her life.

There were things I didn't like. As per the Picoult formula, Amelia goes on the stand in a "surprise" move for the "big reveal", which anticlimactically turns out to be that she overheard her mother say that she wouldn't have aborted Willow no matter what. I absolutely could have done without Amelia's bulimia and cutting, because there actually are some children and young adults who deal gracefully with ongoing, difficult situations. I didn't like the Piper's quirky new obsession with house renovation -- metaphors are great, but let's not beat them to death (no pun intended).

In the end, Picoult has the right to write the books she wants, and I as the reader have to decide if I will keep reading her books. I suspect I will, but for once I don't mind waiting a year or two before her next book comes out. And I'll continue to read them at the library first, and only buy the ones that engage me more than they annoy me (to date, I have only kept My Sister's Keeper and Vanishing Acts). After all, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice.... And I do feel a bit fooled by Handle with Care, even though I didn't particularly feel that way for My Sister's Keeper. I'm not sure that's rational on my part, but there it is.

I feel better now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've been ambivalent about Jodi Picoult but you've convinced me to try her, and told me which book to try. Spoilers don't bother me. :)
So it sounds like you did read Nineteen Minutes? Have you read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver? Same subject matter (fictional account of a school shooting) that came earlier and I found very thought-provoking, engaging, and unique (not least in its format; don't see many epistolary novels these days). I think Shriver's book came first, so perhaps I've been turning my nose up at Picoult's for being an imitation.