Jul 24, 2009

Book review

Handle With Care
Jodi Picoult (Hachette, Rs 595)

Would you abort your special-needs child had you known of her disability in the womb? With Mumbai High Court’s Nikita Mehta abortion case not too distant in Indian public memory, Jodi Picoult’s latest novel rings a discomfiting bell, at once empathetic and tragic.

Charlotte O’Keefe’s second daughter Willow is born with osteogenesis imperfecta – a rare and severe form of brittle-bone disease, which leaves her with broken bones at the slightest stumble, shove or even a hug too tight. After six unsuccessful years of trying to keep Willow safe, neglecting the needs of her husband and elder daughter, and fighting poverty in the face of escalating medical expenses, Charlotte is ready to do anything to ensure a better future for her family. Even if means going to court to say Willow’s was a ‘wrongful birth’. Which happened because the doctor said the foetus was healthy. A doctor who happened to be Charlotte’s best friend.

Fraught with the disturbing wrangle of medical morality, legal loopholes and the obstinacy of motherly love, Handle With Care shakes you up and throws you about in an emotional roller coaster, so that each snap of Willow’s bones leaves you wincing. She’s a bright, adorable six-year-old who can reel off an encyclopaedia of facts. But she must also make sense of why her otherwise doting mother is willing to swear in court that she would have rather aborted her in the womb. Her step-sister Amelia struggles with neglect and bulimia. Her father tears himself apart, caught between the love of his daughter and his wife. Charlotte herself, the protagonist of the whole drama, totters above the colossal self-destruction of her own creation.

The chapters move from one character to another, addressed throughout to the little Willow, around whom the book revolves. With intense kindness, the author lays bare each person’s darkest wounds, thoughts and deeds, reminding us that joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. That desperation is but devotion turned on its head. That you can, indeed, love someone to death. An unforgettable, heart-wrenching read.

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