Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

[Originally posted on June 30, 2014 here]

15507958 Me Before You: A Novel
by Jojo Moyes

Louisa Clark – “Lou” to her friends and family – is twenty-seven and going nowhere fast. She still lives with her parents in their cramped little house, along with her grandfather, her brilliant younger sister and nephew. Lou has just lost her comfortable job at the cafe where she’s worked for the last seven years. Her family depends on her meager income to help make ends meet. After a string of temp jobs, Lou grudgingly accepts a six-month contract to work as a companion/caregiver for a quadriplegic.

Will Traynor has lived a big, adventurous, ambitious life. He’s traveled all over the world, climbed mountains, jumped out of planes, and made a fortune in the cutthroat industry of business acquisitions. At thirty-three, his life takes a devastating turn when he is crossing a street and is hit by a motorcycle. Permanently paralyzed from the chest down, he is wheelchair bound and requires round-the-clock care. Stripped of his ability to feed himself, dress himself, or even make the most mundane of choices for himself, and plagued by repeated infections and health problems related to his condition, Will does not see any point in going on with his life.

When Will’s and Lou’s lives intersect, they are both changed in profound ways. The genesis of their relationship is full of tension and resentment, and Lou has serious misgivings about being able to fulfill the six-month contract she agreed to with this angry charge who hurls abuse at her. Before long, however, her father loses his job, and she is the sole breadwinner supporting a family of six, so quitting is out of the question. Over time, Lou and Will become more comfortable with one another, and a friendship develops. When Lou learns by accident of Will’s ultimate plan and why she was hired on a six-month contract, she becomes determined to turn things around for Will. In her quest to save Will, Will saves her.

This is a love story. I’m not particularly a fan of love stories – or, I guess more accurately, of romance novels – but this story shook me. This is not a story of bodice-ripping damsels in distress, or muscular, square-jawed men who come to the rescue. This is a deep and profound story about love and loss, about living on one’s own terms, about finding untapped inner strength, and about loving another person enough to let go.

Me Before You forces the reader to explore some uncomfortable questions about living and dying, about who gets to decide if a life is worth living. Moyes has brilliantly cast a quadriplegic man who feels he has nothing to live for as a hero, and the relationship that develops between Lou and Will is so natural, so believable, you would almost think that the author is pulling from personal experience (she’s not). Although the subject matter is heavy, the story is not morbid, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Read it. It’s excellent. And have a box of tissues handy. I know I won’t get this story out of my head for a while.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

[Originally posted on June 16, 2014 here]

9781476729091_p0_v10_s260x420 The Rosie Project: A Novel
by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is a genetics professor at an esteemed university in Melbourne, Australia. He’s rigid and deadpan, lacks social finesse, and his life is ruled by a whiteboard hung in his orderly apartment. At thirty-nine years old, Don has decided that it makes sense to acquire a matrimonial partner, and perhaps reproduce. And so he embarks on The Wife Project, a process involving a detailed, multi-page questionnaire presented to potential mates which will screen out all unsuitable applicants: smokers, vegans, jewelry wearers, mathematical illiterates, and the list goes on. And on.

Enter Rosie: twenty-nine, disorganized, impulsive, sometime smoker, and bartender. Rosie shows up in Don’s office one day, and believing her to be a Wife Project applicant, he rules her out immediately as completely and totally unsuitable. However, her quest to find out who her biological father is intrigues Don, and together Don and Rosie embark on The Father Project. Don’s ordered life is turned upside down by Rosie, and, well . . . it’s not hard to see where this is going. Eventually, a new project emerges: The Rosie Project, as Don realizes that he’s in love with Rosie and tries to win her over by attempting to break out of the rigid mold he’s encased himself in.

The story includes a lively supporting cast, including Gene and Claudia, husband and wife psychologists who have an open marriage, who are Don’s only two friends. Gene is on his own quest: to have sex with a woman from as many countries in the world as possible. It is Gene who sends Rosie to Don’s office that fateful day, as a “wild card” for Don’s search for a suitable mate.

It’s obvious from the get-go that Don has Asperger’s syndrome (and he doesn’t realize it), and I have to confess that I had mixed feelings about it throughout the book. Because the story is meant to be a comedy, I couldn’t be sure that on some level Asperger’s wasn’t being exploited or poked fun of, and that made me uncomfortable. Don is an immensely likeable guy despite his social ineptitude and many quirks, and he’s definitely cast as the hero of the story. Still, I’m not sure if there is some sort of statement buried in the story illustrating our societal desire to fix anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within social constructs, or if it’s more of a statement about all of our foibles as human beings, Asperger’s or not.

I chose this book on recommendations from a couple of friends when I was trying to decide which book to choose for my book club this month. Although it’s apparently a bestseller, I had not heard of it before the recommendations. It’s probably not a book I would have otherwise chosen, as my tastes lean more towards drama and adversity. That said, I enjoyed it very much. It’s a quick-paced, light and entertaining read, and there were parts that literally had me laughing out loud. There’s a little bit of intrigue and suspense as Don goes to wild lengths to figure out Rosie’s paternity (the guess I made early on was right on, so it’s probably not difficult for the reader to figure out). It’s a pretty formulaic romantic comedy (can we please stop saying “rom-com”? Seriously.), and in fact was originally written as a screenplay. It has been optioned by Sony for the big screen.

Where the Moon Isn’t by Nathan Filer

[Originally posted on October 7, 2013 here]

UnknownWhere the Moon Isn’t: A Novel
by Nathan Filer

I’ve been meaning to mention that Book Browse is a neat little site where you can read book reviews and keep track of your own reading list, if you’re so inclined. You can get limited access to the site for free, and for a $30/year membership fee you get access the entire site, which is actually pretty extensive, and includes a monthly newsletter with reviews, online book clubs/discussions, author interviews, and more. You also get access to the site’s feature, “First Impressions,” which is a program whereby they offer a limited number of advance copies of soon-to-be-released books for free (well, it’s included in the $30/yearly fee) in exchange for your agreement to read and write a short review on the site. I’ve received quite a few free advance copies of books this way.

So, recently, Where the Moon Isn’t was one of the books offered by Book Browse First Impressions. The description of a novel about two young boys who sneak out one night, but only one of them returns, intrigued me, so I requested and received it to read and review.

From the moment I opened this book, I could hardly put it down.

Matthew and Simon Homes are no ordinary boys. It is gradually revealed that Simon, the older of the two brothers, has Down syndrome. I had no idea when I requested this book that it featured a character with Down syndrome. The way it’s revealed is both matter-of-factly, but almost incidentally. As I began to realize that Simon had Down syndrome – before “Down syndrome” was ever uttered – I got chills as I recognized pieces of my own son, Finn, in him.

The younger of the two brothers, Matthew, narrates the story. It was his idea to convince his older brother, Simon, to sneak out of the caravan the family was vacationing in at Ocean Cove Holiday Park in their native England that fateful night. At the time, Matthew was nine, and Simon 12 – though Simon seemed the younger of the two. Something terrible happens as the boys are sneaking about in the caravan park that night, as their parents slept peacefully, unaware, and only Matthew returns to the caravan.

Now, ten years later, Matthew is still trying to come to terms with his brother’s death and his part in it . . . but now, Matthew is schizophrenic, and he hears Simon talking to him. A lot. Matthew thinks he can bring Simon back.

Told alternatingly between moments of lucidity and madness, this story is like no other story I’ve read. It’s both unflinching and compassionate, heartbreaking and funny, tender and tragic. My eyes burned from reading so late into the night (one night by lantern during a power outage), and by the end, I was laughing and crying.

I was so moved by this story – and it’s a debut novel. This guy can write! I won’t soon forget Matthew and Simon Homes.

This book will be released next month; put it on your wish list.

Note: this book is also sold under the tile The Shock of the Fall.

The Mouse-Proof Kitchen by Saira Shah

[Originally posted on June 14, 2013 here]

16130319 The Mouse-Proof Kitchen: A Novel
by Saira Shah

I received an advance copy of this book and agreed to review it for Book Browse; it’s slated to be released next month.

The Mouse-Proof Kitchen opens with a birth scene: Anna, age 38, is in labor in a London hospital with her first child. The baby’s heartbeat is lost, and the scene climaxes with an emergency c-section. Shortly after baby Freya’s birth she has a seizure, and it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. An MRI reveals that the baby has polymicrogyria, as well as a host of other issues. After contemplating abandoning her in the hospital, Anna and her husband, Tobias, grudgingly decide to take their baby home, and then impulsively buy a wreck of a mountain farmhouse in the South of France. Their plan is that Anna, a chef, will open a restaurant, and Tobias, a musician, will build a recording studio in the barn where he will compose music.

Life with a profoundly disabled baby is hard – made all the harder by the house that’s falling down around them and infested with rodents, and which they are completely ill-equipped to deal with. They attract a motley crew of quirky neighbors and are constantly at odds with the land and the house and their baby, who has seizures night and day. Through all of this, Anna becomes obsessed with trying to “mouse-proof” her kitchen, and it becomes quickly clear that this is symbolic of all of our inability to keep the chaos and messes of life completely at bay. The book is filled with numerous tortured mother-child relationships, too, in an attempt to illustrate the complexities of all mother-child relationships.

Being the parent of a child with a disability, I’m drawn to books that deal with disability – both fiction and non-fiction. By the time I got a couple of chapters into this book, I thought to myself, “I hate it when people write about disability when they have no actual personal connection to disability.” Then I Googled the author and discovered that she does, in fact, have a daughter with profound disabilities, and this book is a “semi-autobiographical” novel. I was very surprised, as the parents in the book seemed so unlikely to me.

Mainly, the book put me in a bad mood. It was extremely difficult to sympathize with the selfishness of two parents who are contstantly fighting about whether they should even try to love their daughter, with the flakiness of a father who remained so detached and self-absorbed for so much of the story, with a mother who could be so cowardly that she would set her baby down in the midst of a seizure, walk away, and close the door on her so that she wouldn’t have to deal with it. It was impossible not to feel angry that they made their situation harder by choosing to live in such intolerable living conditions – a house infested with rats! – and that they often put their daughter’s very life in peril by refusing to address her medical issues.

When I finished the book, I found this article, and it helped me to understand how the author utilized the creation of fictional characters to sort of have them act out dark things that a lot of parents feel but don’t actually act on. The article did make me feel chastened to a degree: here I am feeling self-righteous and sanctimonious, but the truth is, I have no experience with that level of disability – so who am I to judge? Still, as a parent – even as a parent who sometimes fantasizes about running away from even her typical kids (who doesn’t, right?) – it was still very difficult for me to feel empathetic to the characters in this book.

The writing is good, but I’m not exactly sure what other redeeming qualities the story has. The front cover carries a subtitle, “Sometimes life gets a little messy . . .” next to a mouse. This implies a whimsical feeling that the actual grim story does not contain.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

[Originally posted on May 21, 2013 here]

9781250031853_p0_v3_s260x420 Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend: A Novel
by Matthew Dicks

This story introduces us to a parallel world inhabited by imaginary friends whose existence depends upon their “imaginer friends” believing in them. Narrated by Budo, imaginary friend to Max, an eight-year old boy who “lives mostly on the inside.” Max is different from most of his peers, and because of this, he is often misunderstood and often bullied. Even his parents are largely mystified by him, and his differences cause much tension between his mom and dad; his mom wants to get him help, while his dad wants to pretend that Max is “normal.” Only Budo understands Max and accepts him just as he is.

Although the term “autism” is never used in the book, it’s understood that Max has autism. I have no idea how accurately it portrays a child “on the spectrum,” and I have no idea if the author has any personal connection to anyone with autism. I’m always wary of reading about Down syndrome, being the parent of a child with Down syndrome – wary of stereotypes and misconceptions, especially when reading things by anyone who doesn’t actually have a personal connection to Down syndrome. As I was reading this book, I kept wondering how I would perceive it if I were the parent of a child with autism.

In any case, Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend is a novel, and it doesn’t set out to explain or advocate for autism; it sets out to tell a story about a boy and his imaginary friend, and about love and loyalty and sacrifice: ” . . . the hard thing and the right thing are usually the same thing,” Budo realizes when Max is abducted by a disturbed paraprofessional and Budo figures out that the only way he may be able to save Max is to sacrifice his own existence.

Easy read; really enjoyed it.

The Unfinished Child by Theresa Shea

[Originally posted on April 3, 2013 here]

Image.ashx The Unfinished Child
by Theresa Shea

Gripping. Heart-wrenching. Thought-provoking. Riveting. Haunting. Unputdownable.

Those are just a few words that come to mind to describe this just-released novel by Canadian writer, Theresa Shea.

At the heart of the story are three women: Marie, Elizabeth, and Margaret.

In 1947, Margaret gives birth to her first baby, a girl, whom she names Carolyn. She is allowed to hold her baby once, and even that is against her doctor’s advice. Born with Down syndrome at a time when institutionalization of “mongoloids” and “mental defectives” was the norm, something within Margaret dies, nonetheless, at handing her baby over. As was also the norm then, the whole incident is brushed under the rug, and Margaret is expected to forget her first child ever existed, and move on. Move on, she does, having two “healthy” children in quick succession, but Margaret never fully recovers in her heart from Carolyn’s birth and absence. When Carolyn is four years old, Margaret summons up the courage to visit her in the “training centre” in which she is housed, and there begins twelve years of monthly visits from mother to daughter, all undertaken in secret.

Marie and Elizabeth are best friends in modern-day Canada. They’ve been best friends since they were girls, and their friendship has withstood not only the test of time, but of boyfriend stealing, and barely, the fact that Marie has two beautiful daughters and Elizabeth has never been able to have children despite a decade of grueling fertility treatments. Now, on the brink of turning 40, Marie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant again, and the news not only throws her for a loop, but opens up old wounds between her and Elizabeth. One night, Marie wakes from a dream, convinced that something is wrong with the baby she carries – the baby she never planned. Both her premonition and the fact of her “advanced maternal age” lead her down the path of prenatal testing, and suddenly it seems as though it’s not only her and her baby’s fate that lie in the crosshairs, but her husband’s, her existing children’s, and even her best friend’s fates as well.

How the stories of these three women from different eras intertwines will surprise you. Shea takes an unflinching look at the grim horrors of institutionalization, the nuanced dances that take place between spouses and friends, and the price we pay for having choices.

I broke down in tears many times throughout this deftly imagined story, and although I wanted to be able to summon up some righteous outrage at times, what I mostly felt was enlightened and a deep compassion. It drives home the fact that despite the debates raging about prenatal testing, abortion, and inclusion, nothing is black and white, and there are no easy answers.

This is a must read for not only parents in the Down syndrome community, but for all parents, and for anyone who appreciates masterful story-telling. I will not soon forget this book.