Monday, November 30, 2015

Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes




A few days ago, a friend recommended I read this book.  She said it featured a character who was disabled.  So, my sister and I checked it out.  We finished the book in two days.  There were good aspects, but largely, this review is going to be cautionary.  Spoilers will be included, so if you don't wish for the plot to be given away, please click away now.

I found the plot fairly predictable: Lou, a young, financially struggling, able bodied woman, who lived a fairly predictable and safe life goes to work for a disabled, rich man, Will.  Actually, she goes to work for the man's mother.  He is barely seen for the first several chapters, except pre-injury.

From early on, I braced myself.  There were ableist comments from Lou's family and friends when they learned she would be taking on a carer/companion position for Will.  They speculated about his physical functioning, and joked inappropriately about him.  When Lou started working for Will's mother, Lou had a disconcerting habit of referring to Will as "the wheelchair."  (This did get better throughout the novel, thank goodness, but the fact that it was there at all was extremely off-putting.)

Everyone in Will's life, from his mother to his main nurse to Lou, were horribly presumptuous, and had horrible habits of not asking Will what he would prefer, but instead making assumptions.  To me, Will, a character who was living as a recent quadriplegic, had reason to be snarky and short, but he was made out to be unreasonable, problematic and automatically othered.  The main narrator in the entire story was Lou.  Lou is made out, for much of the book, to be the able bodied savior.

At their very first meeting, Will makes a very strange show of groaning and making all kinds of noises to try and throw Lou off.  I found it strange and out of character for a 35 year old grown man to do something like that.

When Will intentionally finds a way to break photographs of an ex girlfriend and best friend who had since gotten together, Lou takes it upon herself to try to fix the frames.  She doesn't seem to take his actions into account whatsoever.  But even more troubling, Lou never reads the binder of information regarding Will's medical needs.  She lacks a basic knowledge of paralysis and she repeatedly blatantly ignores Will's lack of consent.

Lou regularly equates Will with Thomas (who is Lou's four year old nephew.)  Will has no access to outdoors.  Will's mother is frighteningly dehumanizing when she speaks of her son - calling him a "thing."  We come to realize that Will's mother hired Lou in a last ditch effort to convince Will to live.  Because Will wants to go to a special Switzerland clinic where assisted suicide is practiced.  Will's mom says that Lou is "the only only one who can get through to him." Will's father is worse, wanting Will to go to Switzerland and choose to die so that he, himself will have the freedom to leave his wife.  Horrifying.

In an effort to show Will what he has to live for, Lou organizes outings for him, but she discusses these outside of Will's presence.  When she does bring the idea up to him, she does not allow him to object, but takes him out anyway, where they have an awful time, and Will isn't even interested in what the activity was to begin with.

Lou's lack of professionalism was stunningly neglectful.  She gets too drunk to be reliable changing his catheter (twice!) causing Will to get a massive infection that could have easily killed him.  But this is brushed under the rug by the author, couched in a "but they had a good time" sense.  On their final trip, romance has started to blossom between Lou and Will, and Lou naively believes she has changed his mind.  He tells her she isn't enough for him.  He is still planning to follow through with his plan.  Instead of maintaining the barest modicum of professionalism, Lou first leaves Will stranded on the beach in her anger.  This is brushed past by the author (we literally never know how he gets back to the hotel.)  She even refuses to feed him on the flight back home.

I find it troubling, to say the least, that a story like this was pitched as a romance, or that so many who read it felt that Lou and Will would have been remotely suited for one another when she couldn't even be counted on to see to his basic needs when her emotions got in the way.  Another book about why a disabled character doesn't think their life is worth living isn't something I think that's remotely needed.  It reinforces all the harmful stereotypes:  that disabled people exist only to teach lessons to able bodied people, that we have more value dead than we do alive.  We got literally everyone else's perspective who mattered in this book: Lou for most of it, but we also heard from her sister, from Will's parents and Will's primary nurse.  Who did we never hear from?  Who never got a chapter from his perspective?  Will.

This book being authored by an able bodied person does it a great disservice, in my opinion.  Because there are things that get missed.  There was a scene where Will was given a cup of a certain height and a straw of a certain height which allowed him to drink from it unassisted.  The author (as Lou) commented that this was a "small thing," when a disabled author would know that independence for us, is no small thing.

Ironically, the single redeeming quality in this book was the ending.  Will ends his life on his own terms, not being talked out of it by an immature, naive Lou.  He was able to take control back of his life in the only way he could.  While I don't support that narrative, nor what harm it causes my community, in making it Will's own choice, it was important that the story ended the way it did for him.  I didn't appreciate how his life and death "liberated" Lou and made her more able to embrace things in her own life.  Will's life had value because it was his life, not because she had epiphanies from simply existing around him.

There is a sequel.  I don't plan to read it.