Books: Me Before You

Me Before You is the sort of book I would never have picked up on my own. Even knowing it would be the subject for discussion at our monthly book club meeting on Monday, I put off starting it until two days ago. Something about the cover photo of a beautiful young woman and a handsome man staring into each other’s faces just put me off somehow. And that title – sounds like some character is obviously self-absorbed though I didn’t know who it would be.

Note: it’s pretty hard to say much more about the book without giving some hint of the ending, so if you haven’t read it and want to read without knowing what will happen, stop here.

Readers disagree about whether the novel should be categorized as either “chick lit” or romance, though obviously romance is an essential element of the story. It is an easy read in some ways – easy to get caught up in the story, easy to read by the hour (I read about a third of it Thursday evening and the rest this morning). But it tackles difficult themes, primarily regarding disability and assisted suicide, and for many people it is a tearjerker. (Yes, I needed to find a tissue when I was done.)

Is it a good book? It will be interesting to hear what people say at our meeting Monday evening. It certainly does get you thinking about what makes life worth living, and whether there are circumstances that would ever justify assisted suicide. How much is it right to try to change someone else’s choices about how to live – or whether to live? When life gets bad, is love enough?

If arousing deep emotions is a sign of a good book, then it certainly qualifies. But some readers feel strongly that Jojo Moyes fails from a moral standpoint in portraying assisted suicide as a valid choice. Readers also raise questions of how much Moyes really knows about what it means to be disabled. One reader review at (by someone who has a disability) calls it a book “written by a person with limited exposure to the disabled community…  written for people with limited exposure to the disabled community.”

In a Reader’s Guide at the back of the book, Moyes describes some of the research she did in order to portray the daily routines of quadriplegics. And she says that many caregivers and families of quadriplegics have let her know that she represented their lives accurately. Yet while those details may be accurate, how well does that actually communicate what life is like? Many disabled people – even quadriplegics – do not let that aspect of their lives define them, as Will Traynor does.

This review – also by someone with a disability – goes into more detail of how the book “objectifies” disability. She claims that “Moyes simultaneously reflects the reality of disability stigma while furthering perpetuating it.” Moyes uses disability as a plot device, part of a larger trend that this reviewer calls “inspiration porn,” where disabled people are reduced to sources of inspiration.

I can’t help comparing Joni Eareckson Tada‘s real-life story with the fictional Will Traynor. I read the inspiring story of Joni as a teenager, and later heard her speak at one of the Word of Life camps while I was a camp counselor. She went through many of the same struggles as Will Traynor, but found purpose in life through her faith in God. Is it her faith that made the difference? Her personality? The efforts and love of family and friends?

Joni is truly an inspiration. And not surprisingly, she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Me Before You (the movie) either.

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