Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureSpring 2016
Expanding and Contracting Worlds: A Review
By Chris Kuell
I’m always looking for book suggestions, so when my friend told me that her book group loved the novel, ‘Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes, I made a mental note to check it out. When she told me it was sorta-kinda a love story between a man in a wheelchair and his care-giver, I started to have second thoughts. I am definitely not a fan of contrived, heart-wrenching love stories (think anything by Nicholas Sparks) or fictional works written about characters who are disabled by authors who aren’t. Now—before I’m engulfed in hate mail, I fully understand that many fictional characters are conceived and even written quite well by authors who have never been a pedophile (Lolita) or cast a spell (Harry Potter) or cloned a dinosaur (Jurassic Park). However, I have read works where authors have ‘imagined’ what it must be like to be disabled (think pathetic and/or inspirational, because despite their blindness, they can tie their own shoes!! ) which made me cringe and choke back vomit.
Anyway, a few months later a different friend, who knows me well enough that I do trust her judgment, told me I really should give it a read. So I took the plunge.
To summarize without giving away all the goods—Will Traynor is a wealthy, handsome, sky-diving, bungie jumping, model-dating 35-year-oldEnglishman. On a day when it’s raining too hard for him to ride his motorcycle to work, he decides to take a cab and ironically gets hit by another person on a motorcycle and winds up in a wheelchair.
Louisa (Lou) Clark is a waitress at a local café in the small town that she hasn’t left since the day she was born. She lives with her family, a working class bunch who need her contributions to get by, and dates a nice enough guy, but right away we sense there’s no magic there. When the café where she works closes, she feels pressure to find another job. Despite her lack of qualifications, she is hired to assist in the care of Will, who has been a quadriplegic for the past two years.
If you are tempted to stop reading here, I can’t say I blame you. Near the top of the list of things I don’t care for are stories about rich people--Especially handsome, rich people. Now I realize that rich people have problems just like the rest of us, and perhaps because of their money they have the benefit of personal trainers and dermatologists and plastic surgeons and stylists—but I just don’t care. I have a hard time relating. Not that money can fix all problems, but it sure could help most people find better solutions.
Despite my growing reservations, I kept reading. And, if I’m being honest, Moyes’ writing pulled me into the story.
From the onset, Will is an asshole. He’s angry at the world and takes it out on whoever is close by. Louisa feels like a cat in a swimming pool, flailing in her attempts to be nice to Will, but getting nowhere. When she finally cracks and calls him an arse, he begins to respect her. Everyone else walks on eggshells around him, and Lou helps him feel something beyond the superficiality and platitudes.
As the story moves along, we find out (and this isn’t exactly a spoiler) that Will tried to kill himself, and the reason his mother hired Lou was to keep an eye on him and try to boost his spirits. In doing so, they become closer, and Will actually helps Lou by expanding her world and getting her to believe that she can do so much more than she is doing with her life.
I am not a quadriplegic, or in a wheelchair for that matter, so I’m not completely comfortable critiquing Moyes portrayal of Will. However, I was living what most would consider a fairly successful life when I lost my sight at 35 and my world got turned upside down. I lost my career, my friends and family didn’t know how to react to me, I felt completely inadequate, and fell into a deep well of depression. My reaction, as well as Will’s, was probably somewhat typical when life throws such a major curveball at you.
My wife, bless her soul, was exactly what I needed to move on. She pushed and pulled and kicked me forward, helped me accept my new life and helped me do what I needed to do to rebuild it. Will, unfortunately, did not have anyone to push him into moving forward with his life and this troubled me.Yes, his world changed completely that day. Yes, he now had physical limitations. But his brain, the brain that he’d used to make millions as a vulture capitalist, still worked.
Why didn’t he, or someone in his close family, make him see someone about his depression? The sudden onset of a disability, the loss of one’s independence and self-image, is devastating. That loss needs to be grieved, just like the loss of a beloved friend or family member.
Moyes is not disabled, but she does have a deaf son, and I believe she is in tune with what it’s like to be a person with a disability. She obviously did her homework, having Will suffer a C5/6 break, which leaves him physically dependent on others, as well as vulnerable to a host of other health issues. She portrays him as bitter, yet capable of humor and charm. When he delivers a line about how good Louisa is at giving sponge baths to her jealous boyfriend, I couldn’t help but smile. But is he realistic?
Unfortunately, I’d have to say he is. While I accepted my blindness, and I know hundreds of other blind people who have, I also know several who just can’t. One guy I know emails me every 6 months or so asking if I’ve read about any new medical developments that might give him his sight back again. He went blind after catching a virus in the tropics 8 years ago. Another woman I know complains how people aren’t friendly and won’t offer to help her do things. She’s 53 years old, lost her sight at 19, and still refuses to use a white cane.
If I sound judgemental, I apologize. We each walk a unique journey through life, and a multitude of variables make us who we are. I confess to being one of the “glass is half full” people, and it’s sometimes hard for me to understand people who aren’t.
In the novel, Louisa chats online with many quads and caregivers. They help her to understand what’s possible, and she convinces Will to get a computer and hard/software so he can operate it. And yet, she never encourages him to chat with the people she’s met. They never go to a support group or try to meet other quads so Will doesn’t feel so alone in his difficulties. Will keeps insisting he has no control and can’t do anything himself. But with his money, and his smarts, I’m surprised he clings so tightly to that belief.
So is ‘Me Before You’ a worthwhile read? I’d say so. Moyes is a good writer, and she craftily pulls the reader into the story. Her characters are compelling, and the drama centered around the issue of assisted suicide is certainly thought provoking and a great book group discussion topic.
‘Me Before You’ ,by Jojo Moyes, 369 pages, Pamela Dorman Books/Viking.