Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Me Before You
 [Big time spoiler alert!]

It's almost impossible--by my thinking--not to categorize Me Before You as a "problem" novel, a story that may well be consumed by the prominence of a single social issue. I wish that weren't true in a way, because Ms. Moyes has created wonderfully human characters in what amounts to a love triangle, just another love song.

Me Before You is the story of Louise Clark, a Jane Eyre for 2013, a woman who has been burdened by her own indifference toward life itself. She reads a note asking for someone to be a care-giver, applies for and gets that kind of position, taking care of man who was everything she has never been before he became a quadriplegic after a horrible accident. Lou is an innocent; Will has been a feature story from the pages of GQ.

But he's imprisoned in a wreck of a body that requires 24-hour-a day maintenance. He's terminally unhappy and makes sure everyone around him shares his pitiable miseries. Lou's job is to tend him.

What she comes to understand soon enough is that she's become Will's mother's last hope. Will has decided to go to Switzerland and be done with it all, but he's somehow contracted with his mother to wait six months to see if maybe some light may appear he simply hasn't seen in the midnight of his physical horrors. In many ways, Louise Clark is that six months. And, at first, she’s not thrilled at being his savior.

But Me Before You is a love story, and soon enough Lou Clark finds herself falling for someone who is, in many ways, everything she isn't, in every way her opposite. And there lies the outline of the classic triangle--Louise Clark, angel of mercy; Will Traynor, the black prince, and that third player, Death itself by way of assisted suicide.

I read this novel because the reviewer in the New York Times said when she finished the book, her first thought was to read it again. I wanted to read a novel just like that. It is everything that reviewer claimed. I really loved it, loved reading it, I should say, even though, soon enough you understand that the outcome can go in only two directions—life or death.

And that finally is what makes Me Before You a "problem" novel, a story that ties itself so closely to a particular social problem--in this case euthanasia, assisted suicide, mercy killing, call it what you want--that the immense moral question pervading the story simply takes over.

I've been at the bedsides of a dying father and a dying mother-in-law in the last half-dozen years. Our two remaining parents are both mid-90s, and while both of them are doing well, both have also told us that they're more than ready to die. Both are believers. Both look forward to an after-life that will restore peace and joy and love and free them of the walkers both depend on. Let’s face it—what remains for both of them could be harrowing; I’ve seen suffering I wouldn't wish on anyone.

I've often thought that our culture will inevitably entertain quality-of-life questions with more vehemence than it does presently. The inconceivable cost of medical care for elderly--and I'm one of them--will bring that discussion on. There are millions of "boomers" after all, millions and millions of us, and we're going to live longer and longer and longer and need more and more and more medical care, which is ever more and more expensive. We are, alive, a daunting legacy for our children. It's almost impossible to believe that the specter of assisted suicide won't become more of an issue very soon.

But this sweet novel proves, without a doubt, that doctor-assisted suicide will never be easy. Will has an acidic personality when Lou begins to tend him. He's angry and bitter; but then Ms. Moyes gives us every reason to believe he has a right to be a horror--he is, after all, totally dependent on others to perform every last physical function--and clean up after him.

Louise, the innocent gets him to love her, something she never guessed she'd do, even if she'd wanted to early on. But even her love for him and his for her, all of it artfully orchestrated by Ms. Moyes, is not enough to keep him from standing by a decision he told his mother he wanted six months before.

This novel is all about assisted suicide.

Jojo Moyes has created wonderful characters, a man and a woman who almost blessedly incarnate the arguments for and against euthanasia. I honestly loved this novel. It's everything the reviewer said it would be.

But there's no escaping the fact that its joys and its riches can't compete with the "problem" it faces—a problem we do. It's a mark of its strength that, had Will Traynor ditched his plans to die and taken up life with a woman who grew to love him, we would have believed the story, even if we would have rolled our eyes at the expected outcome.

Still, when Will Traynor wins, by losing, it's somehow wrong, which means, finally, that the novel itself is deeply unsatisfying simply because of its outcome: Will Traynor chooses death over life. Even though he has every reason in the world to do exactly what he does, it's still the wrong choice.

I really loved this novel, but when it's all said-and-done, it's finally less of a love story than it is an argument for death. And that's always sad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if the line we have crossed is to do everything and more than is medically possible to try to give the patient just one more week of life, one more month at a high cost to the quality of life for that week or month when the level of hope for fully recovery is zero. The last month or two of a persons life is often the most expensive medically.The problem is, who decides how much hope there is for each case?