I’ve started Me Before You by British writer Jojo Moyes. I may soon put to rest good ol’ Contemporary Fiction, as my reading selection has developed a one-track mind, and variety is always a good thing.
We meet Will Traynor as a young, wealthy businessman who makes a playground of the world. He travels, dates beautiful women, treks mountains, skydives, and participates in other bucket list appropriate activities. One morning he is struck by a motorbike while crossing the street, leaving him a quadriplegic. Two years after the accident, Will makes no secret of his wish to die. Me Before You chronicles the supposed final six months of his life, before his wish to die is to be fulfilled. 26-year-old Louisa Clark, born and raised in the same small English town, is hired to look after him during this time.
It is oft-proved that books written by women that involve relationships, emotions (God forbid!), and contemporary life are disdainfully labeled chick-lit. Books written by men that cover similar topics are often praised as emotionally astute, sensitive, or sweeping. Remember the “white male literary darlings” debacle? Jojo Moyes has this to say: “I have read books that are so clichéd and lazy, my eyes have bled. But I have also read books marketed under the chick-lit umbrella that are so honest, clever and gritty that I’ve wanted to give up writing and paint walls instead.” Here’s to hoping that her own Me Before You gives the painting walls feeling.
I’ll be in Portland for Memorial Day weekend. Microbreweries, coffee shops and cafés and caffès, artisan everything, and charitable footwear like TOMS (see above, worn with socks to perfect old man chic). The life-span of TOMS seems to be very short, no? At some point before coming to that conclusion, I bought a pair that was an old TOMS X The Row collaboration, which only made me feel guilty afterward. It feels a bit unsettling that a company that puts shoes on the feet of impoverished children also sells $150 shoes made of Italian wool and lamb leather. Then again, TOMS has obviously done a lot more for shoeless children than I have, so maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. Anyways. On to Portland!
I spent Mother’s Day weekend in San Diego. San Diego is great if you like the sun, ten-lane freeways, driving everywhere and walking nowhere, shopping malls, snapback hats, and flip flops. Definitely things that I can only take in small doses, except for the snapback hat, which I prefer no dose. Saturday was too hot and bright to be taking photos, except that the benches had hearts carved into them. After the weekend I came back to a feverish Berkeley suffering from another heat wave. Hey, you know what this reminds me of? Sometimes, I wish that I was the weather/ You’d bring me up in conversation forever/ And when it rained, I’d be the talk of the day.
In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Finn Weiss keeps Joy of Cooking on a bookshelf in his kitchen. It is a ritual for him to pull it down and tap his finger on the cover, as if debating what to cook that night. However, the book has actually been hollowed out, and found inside are take-out menus from the best restaurants in New York City. “A different country every night.”
Tell the Wolves I’m Home follows fourteen-year-old June Elbus after she loses her best friend, the kind and brilliant Uncle Finn. The setting, New York during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the troubled characters, and the suspense of so many unanswered questions had me rapt. As I previously noted, the details carry this story far; from a sarcastic black picture frame to a hollowed-out Joy of Cooking, beautiful details are everywhere. But (sorry, I know, that word…) it is as if the unanswered questions that kept me in suspense were far too big and complex for the story to ever match with the requisite big and complex answers. The story is truly stunning until it is time to resolve, and then it buckles under its own weight.
Greta Elbus, June’s sixteen-year-old sister, is a prime example of a complex question with a far too simple answer. Greta is beautiful and talented, the star of her high school’s production of South Pacific. She is also the most obvious villain of the book. Her treatment of Finn’s death and of June is shockingly cruel. As the story progresses, Greta deteriorates, with June describing her as vicious and manic. Greta becomes distant from her friends and begins to drink excessively, pouring vodka into her juice during breakfast. The reader is left in the dark as to what is causing her to behave this way.
Near the end of the book, the reader finally learns that Greta is jealous that June chose to spend more time with Finn than with her. Also, she is unlucky enough to be offered a “huge chance of a lifetime,” the opportunity to be in the Broadway production of Annie. Greta complains that she cannot believe she is “not supposed to be a kid anymore.” She wants to be “average” rather than “great.” I get that what is arguably trivial can seem devastating when you are a teenager, but the discrepancy between behavior and reason for behavior seemed far too extreme. This is only one example of the book’s tendency to offer incredibly simple answers to big questions.
In my preview of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I declared that I was in the midst of a stunning read, and I was, and continued to be for most part. The shortfall described above is not enough to take away from the beauty of the book, mostly stemming from the impressive details. There is a scene when June goes down to Finn’s basement for the first time. In the basement, each tenant of Finn’s apartment building has a storage unit of the standard fare, with stacks of boxes sitting below a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. But not Finn’s storage unit. In place of a bare bulb hangs a crystal chandelier. There is an Oriental rug and a bookshelf filled with field guides to everything: seashells, gemstones, wildflowers, and trees. The story behind why the “annex” exists in the first place is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, like so much of what happens in Tell the Wolves I’m Home. And trust me on the details.