Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Subtle Danger of Me Before You

Her text read something like this: "Please read this book! I'm dying for someone to discuss it with." So at my friend Rose's urging, I was off to obtain a copy of the wildly popular Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Because the film version is opening this summer, I moved it to the top of my long, long, long to-read stack of books.

If you haven't read the book: READ NO FURTHER. SPOILERS AHEAD.

The book opens like a typical romance novel. We are introduced to Will Trayner, a strong virile man with implied serious wealth, enjoying the morning after with his equal female specimen of perfection. However as the Prologue ends, we know this is no typical romance novel.

We next make the acquaintance of Louisa "Lou" Clark, she of eccentric fashion sense and newly joined to the ranks of the unemployed. Lou's family is somewhat dependent upon her wages, although curiously not all that supportive or edifying of her. It is this need for money and her limited job prospects that sends Lou to Granta House, the stately home of Will, who is now a quadriplegic requiring constant care following an accident. We discover Will lives in the home's annex, a visual picture of his diminished life. With no discernible skills pertinent to the job (or so the reader thinks), Lou is hired.

An unlikely friendship develops between these two disparate characters and one might assume a new spin on the Romeo and Juliet story is about to unfold until the plot twist is revealed. Will has attempted suicide in the past and still has this intention. Lou's contract is for six months, not as a trial basis, but because that's the delay Will promised his parents before carrying out his plans. Upon learning of this, Lou first resigns before being begged to stay by Will's mom.  Mrs. Trayner has seen the difference Lou is making in Will and pleads with her to find a way to change his mind. Thus begins Louisa Clark's mission to give Will a reason to live. Along the way, as we already suspected, the friendship deepens and Lou falls in love.

There will be no happily ever after ending. Will Trayner flies to Switzerland to a hospital that provides assisted suicide services. After initially walking away from Will devastated, Lou comes to terms with his decision and at the last minute joins him there to say goodbye. When Lou's mother learns of this, she is appalled by her daughter's decision:
It is not my decision, Mum. It's Will's. The whole point is to support Will.
Support Will? I've never heard such rubbish. You're a child, Louisa. You've seen nothing, done nothing. And you have no idea what this is going to do to you. How in God's name will you ever be able to sleep at night? You'd be helping a man to die. Do you really understand that? You'd be helping Will, that lovely, clever young man, to die.
When Louisa doesn't change her mind, the scene continues with:
If you go, Louisa, you needn't come back.
The words fell out of her mouth like pebbles. I looked at my mother in shock. Her gaze was unyielding. It tensed as she watched for my reaction. It was as if a wall I had never known was there had sprung up between us.
I mean it. This is no better than murder.
Louisa's father and sister try to intervene and plead Lou's case, but her mother is unmoved. This is the exact moment Moyes lost me.

Don't misunderstand - I finished the book, going through a box of tissues in the process. This is a well-written, page turner with characters you grow to care about. And there's the problem.

Assisted suicide sounds so noble. Choosing how to end one's life in light of suffering or, in the case of this fictional character, life-altering injuries. We are heartless if we stand opposed to this choice. Or are we?

Will Trayner, a man with seemingly unlimited means and a high degree of intelligence, chooses to die rather than live a life disabled. His disability has rendered his life meaningless. He can't handle being dependent on others, not scaling mountaintops, or the inability to do all the other things in his previous active life. Louisa's mother opposes Will's choice, so of course, she's wrong. The whole second half of the book builds to the reader's coming to acceptance (and endorsement?) of his suicide. Why can't Louisa's mother see this?  Heck, Louisa is going to travel and be wealthy as a result of his death! Even Will's mother comes to terms with it. By opposing the book's hero and heroine, it is implicit we are to see Louisa's mother as wrong. But she's not wrong; she's principled. And she sees Will as he is - a selfish coward.

Murder is wrong, including self murder. One reviewer called this "tragedy porn," which I found to be very insightful. The book subtly tries to persuade you Will's disabled life is not worth living. His life had setbacks, serious setbacks, and so now he doesn't want it. He has an attractive woman in love with him, a supportive family, means to accommodate his limitations so he can still be active in different ways, but that's not enough. He can't have the life he had, the life he wants, so he's going to end the life he does have.

As a Christian, I believe when the Lord's providence for our life is hard and painful, we still must cling to the promise it is for our good and His glory. We must insist the disabled person has worth. We must insist suffering has worth. Caregivers bless and are blessed. If we still draw breath, we still have purpose. My husband and I  have each cared for a dying parent. It is painful, frustrating, exhausting, and emotionally wrenching, but after their deaths we each were richer. The experience taught us things we wouldn't, or perhaps couldn't, have learned otherwise. Our parents' suffering had purpose.

The book's ending sends the wrong message about how to measure a person's quality of life, a life's worth, what love is, and the possibility of overcoming obstacles and challenges to live a fulfilled, if altered, life. The ending didn't just make me sad; it made me angry. 

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