Handle with Care: A Novel

Front Cover
Simon and Schuster, Mar 3, 2009 - Fiction - 477 pages
165 Reviews

Things break all the time.
Day breaks, waves break, voices break.
Promises break.
Hearts break.

Every expectant parent will tell you that they don't want a perfect baby, just a healthy one. Charlotte and Sean O'Keefe would have asked for a healthy baby, too, if they'd been given the choice. Instead, their lives are made up of sleepless nights, mounting bills, the pitying stares of "luckier" parents, and maybe worst of all, the what-ifs. What if their child had been born healthy? But it's all worth it because Willow is, well, funny as it seems, perfect. She's smart as a whip, on her way to being as pretty as her mother, kind, brave, and for a five-year-old an unexpectedly deep source of wisdom. Willow is Willow, in sickness and in health.

Everything changes, though, after a series of events forces Charlotte and her husband to confront the most serious what-ifs of all. What if Charlotte should have known earlier of Willow's illness? What if things could have been different? What if their beloved Willow had never been born? To do Willow justice, Charlotte must ask herself these questions and one more. What constitutes a valuable life?

Emotionally riveting and profoundly moving, Handle with Care brings us into the heart of a family bound by an incredible burden, a desperate will to keep their ties from breaking, and, ultimately, a powerful capacity for love. Written with the grace and wisdom she's become famous for, beloved #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult offers us an unforgettable novel about the fragility of life and the lengths we will go to protect it.

 

What people are saying - Write a review

User ratings

5 stars
52
4 stars
52
3 stars
29
2 stars
21
1 star
11

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - BEGivens - LibraryThing

When I started this book I was hooked, got lost in the muddle of drab plot thickening somewhere in the middle, then once I got back into it I had a really hard time putting it down... So I could get ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ItEntertainsMe - LibraryThing

Truthfully, I didn't actually finish this one. As usual, Picoult's research and detail on the medical topic is amazing, but when it switched to Willow's perspective and I saw how it was going to end ... Read full review

All 10 reviews »

Selected pages

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

About the author (2009)

Handle with Care PROLOGUE Charlotte
February 14, 2002

Things break all the time. Glass, and dishes, and fingernails. Cars and contracts and potato chips. You can break a record, a horse, a dollar. You can break the ice. There are coffee breaks and lunch breaks and prison breaks. Day breaks, waves break, voices break. Chains can be broken. So can silence, and fever.

For the last two months of my pregnancy, I made lists of these things, in the hopes that it would make your birth easier.

Promises break.

Hearts break.

On the night before you were born, I sat up in bed with something to add to my list. I rummaged in my nightstand for a pencil and paper, but Sean put his warm hand on my leg. Charlotte? he asked. Is everything okay?

Before I could answer, he pulled me into his arms, flush against him, and I fell asleep feeling safe, forgetting to write down what I had dreamed.

It wasn''t until weeks later, when you were here, that I remembered what had awakened me that night: fault lines. These are the places where the earth breaks apart. These are the spots where earthquakes originate, where volcanoes are born. Or in other words: the world is crumbling under us; it''s the solid ground beneath our feet that''s an illusion.

* * *

You arrived during a storm that nobody had predicted. A nor''easter, the weathermen said later, a blizzard that was supposed to blow north into Canada instead of working its way into a frenzy and battering the coast of New England. The news broadcasts tossed aside their features on high school sweethearts who met up again in a nursing home and got remarried, on the celebrated history behind the candy heart, and instead began to run constant weather bulletins about the strength of the storm and the communities where ice had knocked out the power. Amelia was sitting at the kitchen table, cutting folded paper into valentines as I watched the snow blow in six-foot drifts against the glass slider. The television showed footage of cars sliding off the roads.

I squinted at the screen, at the flashing blues of the police cruiser that had pulled in behind the overturned vehicle, trying to see whether the officer in the driver''s seat was Sean.

A sharp rap on the slider made me jump. "Mommy!" Amelia cried, startled, too.

I turned just in time to see a volley of hail strike a second time, creating a crack in the plate glass no bigger than my fingernail. As we watched, it spread into a web of splintered glass as big as my fist. "Daddy will fix it later," I said.

That was the moment when my water broke.

Amelia glanced down between my feet. "You had an accident."

I waddled to the phone, and when Sean didn''t answer his cell, I called Dispatch. "This is Sean O''Keefe''s wife," I said. "I''m in labor." The dispatcher said that he could send out an ambulance, but that it would probably take a while--they were maxed out with motor vehicle accidents.

"That''s okay," I said, remembering the long labor I''d had with your sister. "I''ve probably got a while."

Suddenly I doubled over with a contraction so strong that the phone fell out of my hand. I saw Amelia watching, her eyes wide. "I''m fine," I lied, smiling until my cheeks hurt. "The phone slipped." I reached for the receiver, and this time I called Piper, whom I trusted more than anyone in the world to rescue me.

"You can''t be in labor," she said, even though she knew better--she was not only my best friend but also my initial obstetrician. "The C-section''s scheduled for Monday."

"I don''t think the baby got the memo," I gasped, and I gritted my teeth against another contraction.

She didn''t say what we were both thinking: that I could not have you naturally. "Where''s Sean?"

"I . . . don''t . . . kno--oh, Piper!"

"Breathe," Piper said automatically, and I started to pant, ha-ha-hee-hee, the way she''d taught me. "I''ll call Gianna and tell her we''re on our way."

Gianna was Dr. Del Sol, the maternal-fetal-medicine OB who had stepped in just eight weeks ago at Piper''s request. "We?"

"Were you planning on driving yourself?"

Fifteen minutes later, I had bribed away your sister''s questions by settling her on the couch and turning on Blue''s Clues. I sat next to her, wearing your father''s winter coat, the only one that fit me now.

The first time I had gone into labor, I''d had a bag packed and waiting at the door. I''d had a birthing plan and a mix tape of music to play in the delivery room. I knew it would hurt, but the reward was this incredible prize: the child I''d waited months to meet. The first time I had gone into labor, I''d been so excited.

This time, I was petrified. You were safer inside me than you would be once you were out.

Just then the door burst open and Piper filled all the space with her assured voice and her bright pink parka. Her husband, Rob, trailed behind, carrying Emma, who was carrying a snowball. "Blue''s Clues?" he said, settling down next to your sister. "You know, that''s my absolute favorite show . . . after Jerry Springer."

Amelia. I hadn''t even thought about who would watch her while I was at the hospital having you.

"How far apart?" Piper asked.

My contractions were coming every seven minutes. As another one rolled over me like a riptide, I grabbed the arm of the couch and counted to twenty. I focused on that crack in the glass door.

Trails of frost spiraled outward from its point of origin. It was beautiful and terrifying all at once.

Piper sat down beside me and held my hand. "Charlotte, it''s going to be okay," she promised, and because I was a fool, I believed her.

* * *

The emergency room was thick with people who''d been injured in motor vehicle accidents during the storm. Young men held bloody towels to their scalps; children mewed on stretchers. I was whisked past them all by Piper, up to the birthing center, where Dr. Del Sol was already pacing the corridor. Within ten minutes, I was being given an epidural and wheeled to the operating room for a C-section.

I played games with myself: if there are an even number of fluorescent lights on the ceiling of this corridor, then Sean will arrive in time. If there are more men than women in the elevator, everything the doctors told me will turn out to be a mistake. Without me even having to ask, Piper had put on scrubs, so that she could fill in for Sean as my labor coach. "He''ll be here," she said, looking down at me.

The operating room was clinical, metallic. A nurse with green eyes--that was all I could see above her mask and below her cap--lifted my gown and swabbed my belly with Betadine. I started to panic as they hung the sterile drape in place. What if I didn''t have enough anesthesia running through the lower half of my body and I felt the scalpel slicing me? What if, in spite of all I''d hoped for, you were born and did not survive?

Suddenly the door flew open. Sean blew into the room on a cold streak of winter, holding a mask up to his face, his scrub shirt haphazardly tucked in. "Wait," he cried. He came to the head of the stretcher and touched my cheek. "Baby," he said. "I''m sorry. I came as soon as I heard--"

Piper patted Sean on the arm. "Three''s a crowd," she said, backing away from me, but not before she squeezed my hand one last time.

And then, Sean was beside me, the heat of his palms on my shoulders, the hymn of his voice distracting me as Dr. Del Sol lifted the scalpel. "You scared the hell out of me," he said. "What were you and Piper thinking, driving yourselves?"

"That we didn''t want to have the baby on the kitchen floor?"

Sean shook his head. "Something awful could have happened."

I felt a tug below the white drape and sucked in my breath, turning my head to the side. That was when I saw it: the enlarged twenty-seven-week sonogram with your seven broken bones, your fiddlehead limbs bowed inward. Something awful already has happened, I thought.

And then you were crying, even though they lifted you as if you were made out of spun sugar. You were crying, but not the hitched, simple cry of a newborn. You were screaming as if you''d been torn apart. "Easy," Dr. Del Sol said to the OR nurse. "You need to support the whole--"

There was a pop, like a burst bubble, and although I had not thought it possible, you screamed even louder. "Oh, God," the nurse said, her voice a cone of hysteria. "Was that a break? Did I do that?" I tried to see you, but I could only make out a slash of a mouth, the ruby furor of your cheeks.

The team of doctors and nurses gathered around you couldn''t stop your sobbing. I think, until the moment I heard you cry, a part of me had believed that all the sonograms and tests and doctors had been wrong. Until the moment I heard you cry, I had been worried that I wouldn''t know how to love you.

Sean peered over their shoulders. "She''s perfect," he said, turning to me, but the words curled up at the end like a puppy''s tail, looking for approval.

Perfect babies didn''t sob so hard that you could feel your own heart tearing down the center. Perfect babies looked that way on the outside, and were that way on the inside.

"Don''t lift her arm,

Bibliographic information