Because of my bad habit of stereotyping romance novels, I had no intention of ever reading Me Before You mainly because of my bad habit of stereotyping romance books. I know, I know. One should not judge a book by its genre, but romance has always seemed too overdramatic to me. For the most part, I have changed my mind but only because I was forced to.
During one of my tutorials for my Media Ethics and Law class here at University, one of our lecturers recommended a viewing of Me Before You so that we could get an understanding of the various ethical standpoints it presented. Even though she spoiled the plot during our discussions, her recommendation for an academic purpose made me step out, get the book and read it.
I have no regrets.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, learned something about ethics and I have gained a new appreciation of the different types of romance novels out there.
Me Before You is about Louisa Clark’s desperate attempt to save William Traynor’s life. William, her employer’s quadriplegic son, was a man enjoying the peak of his prime before a motorcycle accident reduced him to a life in a wheelchair. When Clark meets him, he only has limited mobility in his hands, neck, and head and he barely masks his dissatisfaction with this new life behind his sarcastic wit. These unfortunate circumstances have left Will determined to die and Clark has been hired specifically to race against the clock and convince him otherwise.
My lecturer loves to thread controversial waters and Jojo Moyes certainly delivers in this respect. Me Before You is the type of book that forces you to reconsider everything you know about the sanctity of life and who actually owns it. William was desperate to die for a good reason. Before his accident, he was an active, successful man until that stroke of bad luck trapped him in his own body and robbed him of the independence he once enjoyed. Some may argue that this unlucky event happened for a reason, that his life is still sacred and thus, it would be sinful, immoral or just plain wrong to have him end it prematurely.
However, William already believed that his life was over. He was helpless, in need of 24-hour care and the many complications of paralysis, such as his new inability to regulate his core body temperature and his increased vulnerability to pneumonia, already sentenced him to die a terrible and undignified death. Therefore, why shouldn’t the man choose how he wants to die? Why should he drag out his suffering because of what others think?
William’s main argument is that everyone around him tries to dictate what he should or should not do without trying to ask him what he really wants. He is right. All the able-bodied people around him, who have no true idea of the pain he experiences, seem to feel that they are somehow entitled to dictate what he should do with his life. This, for him, erodes his sense of dignity and understandably so. What rights, after all, do we have over another person’s body in such a situation? Why shouldn’t William be granted exclusive rights over his own body? Why shouldn’t he have a choice to choose to die with dignity like the many more privileged and able-bodied people before him? Moyes does not hold back on this ethical theme and I thank my lecturer for the exposure.
Apart from this academic viewpoint, Me Before You was a superb read. I really enjoyed its irony. Throughout the book, Moyes draws our attention to the many ethical dilemmas surrounding William and his condition, but we never hear anything directly from him. Everything we know about him is through his mother, father, medical caretaker, lawyer and of course the narrator, Louisa Clark. In this sense, it is a bit funny that a character who complains about his lack of independence and control cannot even dictate who tells his story and how. All of the other characters in the book, particularly Louisa, speak for him and we have no other choice but to assume that what they tell us is true. Paradoxically, William doesn’t even have power over Moyes herself and how she writes the book about him, which seems to be the greatest statement Me Before You makes about disability and ableism. We should not hold the mic and speak over the ones we want to help. We should pass it along and let them speak for themselves.
In closing, Me Before You was a brilliant read. I became fully immersed in the story and completely forgot that I was reading for an academic purpose. I hope to grab After You sometime later this year to see what trouble Clark gets herself into next. I know that if this novel is anything to judge by, I will not be disappointed.