Even though this is a positive review, it is going to be filled with caveats, because as much as I enjoyed the story I acknowledge that there are problematic elements in it that are bound to upset a significant amount of people - hell, they upset me. On that note, I am also writing this review from the perspective of someone who is able-bodied, so I know that I haven't the hope of fully understanding what it's like to live with paraplegia, which hopefully won't cause this review to be drowned in privilege.
I'm always leery about books like these, books that soar up the best-seller charts to be made into popular movies. I rarely end up liking them, which is why I avoided ME BEFORE YOU for as long as I did. It seemed like an ill-fated match. I'm still smarting from ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. But then the film came out, and it had a whole bunch of great people in it, and I thought to myself, "Well, if Daenerys Targaryen, Neville Longbottom, and Finnick Odair are in it, it couldn't possibly be bad!"
...and it wasn't.
***Warning: big spoilers***
ME BEFORE YOU is kind of like a cross between FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. You have a twenty-six-year-old girl who acts and dresses like she's still in high school, who has a horrible (horrible!) family, can't hold down a decent job, and has absolutely zero hobbies and interests beyond dressing like she's got a terrible Modcloth addiction. The hero is a multi-millionaire business tycoon who now has paraplegia, and isn't coping very well. In fact, he has terrible depression and can't quite come to terms with the fact that he won't be "himself" again.
Louisa Clark, the heroine, ends up as a caretaker for Will Traynor, the hero, due to a series of events. She loses her coffee shop job, and her family is poor - and since her dad's about to get laid off and her selfish sister wants to go back to school (but not pay for it herself), it's up to Louisa to pay for everything. I think it says something about her character that she whines about not being able to go back to work at another coffee shop and then fixates on whether she'll have to wipe his bottom or not.
Once she gets past his fearsome mother, she finally gets to meet Will, who has turned himself into a brooding portrait of nineteenth-century tragedy. He even screams at her when the first meet, just to mess with her, like he's channeling Mrs. Rochester from JANE EYRE. He never leaves the house, has isolated himself from his friends and family, and has turned into a very bitter and unpleasant person.
But eventually, Lou starts to see the good in Will. She appreciates his wit and his philosophy, and starts trying to find ways to make him happy. Then she overhears a family argument and learns that Will has plans to kill himself at Dignitas. He's given his family a six-month deadline before he puts this awful plan into action, and Louisa realizes that she's essentially been hired on as "suicide watch" without being warned about this at all. Her job isn't to care for him, it's to keep him from trying to kill himself before he's supposed to, and to change his mind for him if she can.
Even though I enjoyed this book, I did have some problems with it, as I mentioned before. They can be summed up thusly:
1. While I honestly believe that the author's attempts were good, this is first and foremost a sob story. Accurate representation kind of takes a backseat here. There are some uncomfortable passages with people saying terrible things and making terrible assumptions about people who use wheelchairs that just aren't true - at least not all of the time, and not for all people (they can go to theme parks, for example, and there are rides that are wheelchair-accessible). Also, I took issue with the fact that people with paraplegia are referred to as "paraplegics" and "quads" - you aren't supposed to refer to people by their disability, because that means that you're defining them by their disability. A huge no-no.
2. Louisa's family was horrible. Her father joked about how fat she was, her sister was a selfish, incredibly insensitive brat, and I hated her mother for threatening to kick Louisa out of the house if she accompanied Will to Dignitas. I didn't really care for Louisa much, either, to be honest. At least not at first. She grew on me a bit towards the end of the story, but for most of the beginning, I thought her sarcasm was mean-spirited and couldn't stand her childishness. It was exhausting, not cute.
3. The way suicide was dealt with in this book felt very thorny. Like I said, I don't understand what it's like to be in Will's position, but I was surprised that he didn't seem to be seeing a therapist, in a support group, or taking antidepressants (at least, not that I remember?). His family allowed him to be isolated, which seems like absolutely the worst possible thing for someone who is having suicidal ideation and has already attempted to kill themselves before. I also didn't like how a number of the characters seemed to think it made total sense for Will to want to die after his accident. I can imagine the grief, and the difficulty adapting, but it was upsetting to see the characters agree that having a disability seemed to make wanting to die a totally acceptable, understandable thing to do.
4. The ending. You probably know how it ends already, but if you don't, I won't spoil it for you. But it did upset me, and thank God I'd read the spoilers before reading the book, because if I hadn't - if it had taken me off guard - I think I might have thrown the book across the room in a fit of rage and given it a much lower rating than I did. I just couldn't understand why what happened had to happen. It felt a lot like spitting into the eye of love. It's so rare when you find a romance where the characters have genuine, actual rapport, and to see what happened happen...was very, very upsetting.
I'm giving this book four stars because the story was well told, and the character development is good. Louisa grows from a selfish brat into a person who is capable of being mature and thinking of others before herself and taking risks. Is it annoying that a man changes her? Yes. But it's often the people we love who cause us to change, because they see the flaws in us, and love us in spite of them but also inspire us to want to better ourselves, too (yet another reason why I hated the ending - what happened did not feel like love). The pacing is good and the dialogue feels natural, and it's got such a gorgeous setting that makes the whole story feel larger-than-life.
ME BEFORE YOU is a problematic book, but I think those problems will inspire good discussions about representation, disability, depression, and love. There are a lot of great articles about ME BEFORE YOU, both in praise and in condemnation of it, and both are worth reading. I do wish the author had made different choices, but at the end of the day, it was a pretty good story, so you might as well jump on the bandwagon and see for yourself what the fuss is about.
4 out of 5 stars.
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