I’m a sucker for a romance novel. It started with Twilight, desperately wanting to be moody, misunderstood, plain but ultimately gorgeous highschool student and for a sultry, glittery “vampire” to come waltzing into my life. Since then I’ve nary read a book that didn’t involve a bit o’ smoochin’, so when my mum recommended this one, I dove straight in.
Beware of spoilers!
I’ll start off by saying that this book isn’t the sort of thing I would usually read. I enjoy a good love story, but the romantic element is usually an added bonus in the midst of a good fantasy novel. I don’t usually read anything as — shall we say — realistic as this; my reason for reading it at all is a recommendation from my mum, whose taste in books I trust wholeheartedly.
I had certain misgivings when I first started reading. First and foremost I was wary that Will’s disability could be treated as a gimmick, much the same way that TFIOS’s Hazel’s cancer was; and Lou would be lauded as some sort of hero for bringing herself to love a man in a wheelchair. I was also worried that it would be somewhat sickening to read all the way to the conclusion, which would see Lou’s love for Will change his perspective on life and she would ~save~ him (those who have read this will know it doesn’t exactly pan out that way). Honestly I didn’t really give Lou much of a chance, and I didn’t actually like her very much at the beginning. She was just such a wet blanket, and I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to get a grip. It also wound me up that she was so — let’s face it — frightened by Will’s wheelchair that she could barely function; although I do get that this was one of the points that Moyes was making.
I started to like the book when I started to like Lou. It’s not exactly a coming-of-age novel, but it was good to see her flourish so spectacularly, even more so to see her go through the stages of misunderstanding that are necessary to truly understand the individual impact of a person’s disability. For example, the day at the racecourse made me cringe and literally shake my head at the book, because she genuinely thought it would be THAT easy. I was also pleasantly surprised that she persevered with the job rather than just give up, which is what a lot of people would have done. By the end of the book, Lou was no longer an unambitious, closeted, overgrown girl who apologised to the entire room with her very presence; she was a broad-minded young woman with goals and a vision of her future, freed by Will’s burden. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere but I’ll leave that to someone more qualified!
I was initially worried that Will would become The Wheelchair, as I thought that would be a huge trap for Moyes to fall into. In many ways, he did become The Wheelchair, but he was simultaneously much more than that. I am glad that his disability wasn’t overlooked in a “we’re all the same” sort of way, because Will is not the same as everyone else. Will has a severe disability that has a huge impact on how he now lives his life, and it should not be overlooked or ignored. It would be naive to pretend it wasn’t there and carry on as normal, particularly when for so many people, it is a massive elephant in what has suddenly become a very small room. Everyone knows it’s there, but nobody talks about it. This is demonstrated perfectly when Will and Lou go to the theatre to see a concert:
“Here’s the thing about middle class people. They pretend not to look, but they do. They were too polite to actually stare. Instead, they did this weird thing of catching sight of Will in their field of vision and then determinedly not looking at him. Until he’d gone past, at which point their gaze would flicker towards him, even while they remained in conversation with someone else. They wouldn’t talk about him, though. Because that would be rude.”
The book did a very good job of outlining people’s varying reactions to a wheelchair. I mentioned to my friend that this book made me feel uncomfortable, and that’s because she managed to hit the nail right on the head in terms of ableism and its many forms.
I was a little disappointed when Lou declared her love for him on the last day of the holiday. It seemed to make the whole story take a really cringey turn in the direction of a place I was really hoping to avoid. But upon reflection I think it served a purpose. Lou clearly thinks that they — she and Will — can get past Will’s disability together, but in her naivety she ignores the very thing she has been learning: that it’s not a case of “getting past” the disability, because his disability is important. He outlines that very succinctly in telling her that her love for him is just not enough. Harsh, maybe, but honest. In hindsight, it was very silly of Lou to adopt the belief that love conquers all when the person she loved so much was so unhappy.
To sum up, despite all my misgivings, I did like this book — eventually. The ending displeased me (as most story endings do, unfortunately), but Moyes had clearly done her research with a book like this and managed to convey some very powerful opinions whilst keeping the focus on the story. She was also able to develop her characters very well, and handled the subject sensitively by turning it upside down and giving it a rough shake.
Have you read Me Before You?