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I wanted to read Me Before You because the hype behind the forthcoming film adaptation had me convinced that the story had to be better than the general ableist tropes that turn such stories into cliches. Having read the novel, I’m for once in my life hoping a movie diverts significantly from the source material.
Quick interjection: This and all reviews are going to be spoilery. You’ve been warned.
Me Before You centers around Will, a one time whiz kid financier/amateur daredevil (because of course he is) who finds himself a quadriplegic following an (ironically) ordinary car accident. The story has a brief interlude with the accident but is focused primarily on his new life in a wheelchair. He’s paired with Lou(isa), a working class and somewhat aimless young woman who’s hired by Will’s mother to be a caregiver/cheerleader for the now melancholy Will. Love ensues, because of course it does. In a twist, however, Will can’t reconcile himself to life in a wheelchair and plans to end his life via physician assisted suicide in Norway. In a greater twist, he actually does it.
Will’s disability is not addressed as a reality, but rather as a plot point to fuel the story. Which is fine, it’s what fiction is made of, but the way its used in Me Before You has potentially awful implications for both disabled people and caregivers because it rests on the laurels of hurtful and harmful stereotypes.
Number one is the novel’s cavalier attitude towards caregiving. Hollywood and pop culture have a collective idea that pink collar professions like caregiving and teaching require nothing but pluck, resolve, and a big heart. I’ve done both in my life, and while that list is necessary, no teacher or caregiver has ever, ever, ever been successful without a bounty of education and training. I’ve sunk myself into debt paying for the degree that enabled me to work with special needs individuals and spent countless hours in boring but essential mandatory training every year to make sure I’m at the top of my game, so the idea that a character like Lou, whose primary qualification is cheerfulness, could do my job is horribly insulting.
This is not an indictment of Lou, but rather Will’s mother and de facto primary caregiver. She’s an upper class woman with a wealth of resources and a job as a district magistrate–if anyone should know better than to blunder half-assed through the hiring process, it should be an educated and presumably intelligent person such as her. Will has a nurse who attends to his medical care, but Lou is hired to attend his basic needs, prepare his meals, and keep his spirits up. What Lou doesn’t know is that Will is fresh off a suicide attempt, and she has six months to change his outlook on life before he heads off to Norway, per a deal he made with his mother.
Should anyone reading this be confused, let me be clear: you do not, ever, for any reason under the sun, assign a caregiver to a suicidal patient WITHOUT TELLING SAID CAREGIVER THE PATIENT IS SUICIDAL. Lou is only ever told she can’t leave Will alone for longer than 10 minutes, but is never told why. Not, however, that she’d have many options if Will did self-harm, as she hasn’t had any psych, first aid, or CPR training.
Lou’s naivete and dearth of qualifications circumvent the potential fallout for developing a romantic relationship with her patient, a dead horse Hollywood has beaten into glue.
The greater problem with Me Before You is its treatment of the character of Will. Will faced a serious trauma, and while accommodations have been made for his body, little more than lip service has been rendered to his mind. There’s no significant in-story address given to the kind of psychotherapy someone who’s had such a drastic alteration of circumstance would need to adjust. 2007 Will is a London big shot who spends his free time bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, and generally being a master of the universe. 2009 Will spends his time in his parents’ country home, reading, watching tv, and spending absolutely zero time with anyone who isn’t being paid to be with him. The accident triggers his depression, his environment exacerbates it.
Through various innocuous happenstances, Lou discovers that Will is going to end his life, and decides that she’s all in for getting him to change his mind before the deadline is reached. Does she help the wealthy, well-connected former tycoon set up a consulting business to give his days purpose? Does she try to organize meetings with other quadriplegic folks to foster a sense of community? Does she research the latest technologies to see what can be done to give Will more independence? No, somewhat, and no again. She plans and executes a few ill-received outings, all without Will’s input.
The greatest problem with Me Before You is that both the characters and the narrative rob Will of his agency. The story purports that the tragedy is Will’s inability to reconcile his new circumstances with the self-described “big life” he was living before. In reality, the tragedy is Will is completely robbed of his agency by the abled people in his life, all of whom collectively think that love outweighs respect, and use their good intentions to pave a path straight to the destination of the proverb. Will’s suicide is essentially him reclaiming control over his autonomy, the most basic and important of human rights.
Will, like most disabled characters in mainstream fiction, serves as a prop for Lou’s abled character–her growth, her arc. There’s a richer story to tell when he gets to grow alongside her, or even, dare we dream, be the star of the show.