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Literature / Handle with Care

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A 2009 novel by Jodi Picoult.

When Charlotte and Sean O'Keefe's daughter, Willow, is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, they are devastated as she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain. As the family struggles to make ends meet to cover Willow's medical expenses, Charlotte thinks she has found an answer. If she files a wrongful birth lawsuit against her ob/gyn for not telling her in advance that her child would be born severely disabled, the monetary payouts might ensure a lifetime of care for Willow. But it means that Charlotte has to get up in a court of law and say in public that she would have terminated the pregnancy if she'd known about the disability in advance - words that her husband can't abide, that Willow will hear, and that Charlotte cannot reconcile. And the ob/gyn she's suing isn't just her physician - it's her best friend.

Not to be confused with the short-lived Troy McClure sitcom about Jack Handle, retired cop who shares an apartment with a retired criminal.


  • Amoral Attorney: Guy Booker, Piper's malpractice insurance lawyer. Though he does have a human moment when he tells the wayward Amelia to go back to her parents, saying that they have enough on their plates without having to worry about where she's run off to.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The whole drama of the novel centers around Charlotte claiming, in a court of law, that she wishes her youngest daughter wasn't in her life. Diabolus ex Machina ensures that her wish is granted — in the most grim way possible.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Both Charlotte and Piper describe Sean as viewing the world this way.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Willow is portrayed as wise (almost saintly) beyond her years and possibly more sensible than her Knight Templar mother. The one time she actually acts her age, it costs her dearly: out of childish curiosity and fascination for the forbidden, she walks on to the ice-covered pond of her home. The ice shatters and Willow drowns.
  • The Caretaker: Charlotte, of the narcissistic variety. She's so singularly focused on making Willow's life better that she's willing to sue her best friend and risk destroying her marriage to ensure that Willow's care is paid for. And that's not even including the degree to which she neglects her other child, Amelia.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The pond at the O'Keefe's house. And the fact that Sean hasn't had time to seal it.
    • Ice-skating being something that Willow isn't allowed to do.
    • Amelia being on the witness list.
  • Child by Rape: Charlotte's lawyer Marin is revealed to be the result of a rape.
  • Child Prodigy: Willow.
  • Children Are Innocent: Zigzagged with Willow. She spouts some surprising wisdom at times, but there are also plenty of moments where it's apparent that she's still a little kid.
  • Collateral Angst: A big part of the book is the fact that while Willow is physically injured for most of the book (she has brittle bone disease), it's her mother, Charlotte, that does all the angsting- and it's her mother's lawsuit that threatens the family, not Willow's disease. Even Charlotte is forced to realize that the court case she's set in motion is more about herself than Willow.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The jury pool for Charlotte's trial just happens to include Marin's biological mother.
  • Deus Angst Machina: The whole family, but especially Amelia.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Charlotte throws her best friend and one of her daughters under the bus to pay for her other daughter's medical bills, only for her daughter to die in a freak drowning accident less than a month later.
  • Downer Ending: Charlotte has effectively driven herself and Amelia into near-complete isolation, Piper loses her career, and Willow drowns in the skating pond, essentially rendering the entire lawsuit pointless.
  • Driven to Suicide: Piper's husband Rob had an older brother with bipolar disorder who committed suicide at the age of seventeen. Later, it's subverted with Willow. She ends up in the hospital after slashing her wrists and everyone thinks that she was trying to kill herself - except Amelia, who figures out that Willow was just imitating her.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: Amelia, once Charlotte's lawsuit causes her to lose all her friends.
  • Emo Teen: Amelia.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Charlotte backstabbing her loyal friend, Piper, ruining her entire career in order to get money from the ensuing lawsuit. It's a Kick the Dog moment for Charlotte, but in-universe, Piper comes off worst; the last we hear of her she's working part-time at a free clinic, having lost her former position, and judging by the stilted conversation she has with Willow and Sean, this is not where she wants to be.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Analyzed heavily. What a wrongful birth lawsuit basically says is that the parents, had they known their child had a debilitating illness, would have aborted. In the flashbacks to Charlotte's pregnancy, it's shown that Charlotte did think about abortion, not wanting her child to have such a difficult life - but her fellow practicing Catholic husband, Sean, was obviously not at all receptive to the idea, and so she never brought it up to him. After speaking with a nearby neighbor who had had an abortion a couple of years prior for similar reasons and regretted it, Charlotte ends up deciding to keep Willow.
  • Happily Adopted:
    • Marin, which is why she didn't even consider looking for her biological parents until shortly before the novel began. After the trial, she ends up getting a Happily Adopted son named Anton.
    • Amelia. Her biological father was a drug addict who left Charlotte during her pregnancy, but she clearly considers Sean to be her father, although she sometimes feels that he couldn't possibly love her as much as Willow, his biological daughter.
  • Hollywood Law: Picoult admitted to taking liberties with the way juries are selected in order to make that section of the novel more interesting.
  • Honor Before Reason: Because that substantial check certainly wouldn't benefit anyone else...say, other children suffering from brittle bone disease. Or, for that matter, Amelia. The family still has medical bills to contend with, Willow's and Amelia's. Charlotte's willing to make incredible emotional sacrifices to obtain the payout for Willow, but can't bring herself to hold onto it for Amelia?
  • Hope Spot: At the beginning of the epilogue, Willow indicates (in her own way) that while things aren't totally back to normal, the cracks in the family are starting to mend, that the money from the lawsuit is allowing them to have a more comfortable lifestyle (even though they never redeem the check, just knowing it's there as a safety net), that Amelia has returned from treatment and is doing great in her recovery, and that she (Willow) is excitedly preparing to go to camps for children with her disorder, allowing her to make friends and gain some independence. Then Willow gets the idea to try out "ice skating" on the pond...
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Willow's portrayal of the trial from the last chapter, which is told in her point of view.
  • It's All About Me: Charlotte, as a narcissistic caretaker, comes across this way. She dwells on all the sacrifices she has had to make, while dismissing everyone else's woes because she doesn't think that they count for as much. Even Willow's feelings are summarily dismissed at key points in the novel. In the course of the story, even she is forced to recognize how selfish her actions have been.
  • Knight Templar Parent: Deconstructed with Charlotte. She may think and feel her actions are what's best for Willow's future, but they also serve to ruin the lives of her family and her best friend in short order. It may seem alright to do horrible things in the service of a noble cause, but they're still horrible things and if the entire reason you did them becomes moot then all you're left with is the consequences of your own atrocities. It's basically C. S. Lewis' famous speech on the doctrine of the second coming with more words and less religion.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Sean and Charlotte have a very theatrical reconciliation in the courtroom, and Amelia bitterly accuses the judge of setting it up.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Charlotte sees herself as her ill daughter's emotional crutch, but in reality it's the other way around (she defines herself by her child's illness, and her role as mother/martyr).
  • Marital Rape License: Done very creepily when Sean rapes Charlotte while telling her that he loves her, as a way of demonstrating that words don't make actions any better.
  • Motherhood Is Superior: Charlotte believes this. "Oh, Sean...You're the best father. But you're not a mother." Deconstructed, though, in that she is a Tautological Templar-type antagonist who uses this as the centerpoint of her martyr complex and drags the entire family down to Hell with her.
  • Multiple Narrative Modes: All chapters but one are in second person perspective, using "you" to refer to Willow. The final chapter is told from Willow's first person perspective.
  • No Ending: Partially. Willow's story gets closure (even if it's pretty grim closure) while her emotionally-neglected sibling remains something of an untied plot thread.
  • Parental Abandonment: Marin was adopted at birth and has never known her biological parents. After months spent trying to track them down, she ends up getting her biological mother as a juror in Charlotte's trial, and subsequently discovers that her mother gave her up because she was the result of a brutal rape.
  • Parental Favoritism: As in all of Jodi Picoult's novels. Charlotte's daughter from her previous marriage, Amelia, is mostly forgotten about. She eventually starts cutting herself and develops bulimia. The person who notices, in fact, is not Charlotte or Sean but Piper, the ob/gyn they are suing.
  • Pet the Dog: Piper's sleazy lawyer, Guy Booker, gets exactly one humanizing moment in the novel: when he spots Amelia hanging around without parental supervision, he tells her to go home because her mother has enough to worry about at the moment (like the fact that he's fighting against her in a lawsuit, for example).
  • Poor Communication Kills: A great deal of Amelia's troubles could have been avoided if it had ever occurred to Charlotte to explain her motivations behind the lawsuit to her.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The outcome of the lawsuit for Charlotte. Charlotte is left friendless, with no social life, having betrayed her best friend through the lawsuit, and without her daughters. Amelia is left equally isolated by her mother's actions, having lost her best friend - Piper's daughter - who has turned all her classmates against her as well. She's also been shipped away to a clinic to sort out her bulimic and self-harming issues. Piper has lost her job and her reputation is destroyed. The O'Keefes never get around to cashing the cheque that Charlotte overturned their lives for, since Willow drowns in a freak accident and Charlotte puts the cheque in her coffin, making the Pyrrhic victory complete.
  • Self-Harm: Amelia is a cutter. Willow almost dies emulating Amelia later in the book.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Willow drowns in a freak accident at the end of the book, as detailed under Pyrrhic Victory, rendering the main plot pointless. Everyone else winds up worse off than before, making it a glorious example of shaggy-dog shooting.
  • Strictly Formula: Many of Jodi Picoult's books are similar in general plot and themes, but this book follows the exact same plot structure as My Sister's Keeper: Sara/Charlotte is so focused on Kate/Willow that she neglects her husband and emotionally abuses Jesse/Amelia, causing the latter to act out in ways that the mother is blind to because she's so consumed with the sick child. The book follows the build-up and execution of a lawsuit over an ethical issue in medicine, and although the lawsuit is won, a sudden twist at the very end kills off a character in a way that renders the winning of the lawsuit moot.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Charlotte, Sean, Amelia, Marin, and Piper take turns narrating. Willow narrates the final chapter.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Many reviews criticize Willow's death for being this.
  • The Un-Favourite: Amelia, since Willow is basically the center of the O'Keefe family. For the most part, Amelia is not allowed to do things that Willow can't do. For example, the trip to Walt Disney World, where Amelia is only allowed to go on the rides that Willow can go on, rather than her parents taking them on separate rides. To add insult to injury, by the end of the book, with Amelia left friendless, neglected and self-recriminating, Charlotte and Sean subject her to a tirade of abuse when Amelia's self-harming and bulimic problems are revealed, complaining that they "don't understand" what her problem is.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: As Amelia herself bitterly lampshades, none of the novel's plot would have happened had Amelia not forgotten the emergency room doctor's note explaining Willow's disease.