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Youre Not You by Michelle Wildgen

Erin Frauenhofer

Wildgen balances the debate by making it a question of trust, not a question of assisted suicide.

You're Not You

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Length: 288
Price: $23.95
Author: Michelle Wildgen
US publication date: 2006-05

The thrill of writing her first novel may have blinded Michelle Wildgen to the fact that You're Not You tells a too-familiar story. Around the middle of the book, the main character even jokes, "You think I'm like those TV movies where the person with the disease teaches everyone how to live." Well, yes. But at least Wildgen writes the story with such powerful earnestness that if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, you'll find her novel a pleasing performance.

In Wildgen's version of the familiar tale, a self-centered college student (Bec) is hired to assist a woman (Kate), who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. Bec only applies for the job because she wants to feel good about herself and impress her friends and family, but much to Bec's surprise, she grows to love Kate -- and this relationship is, of course, life changing. Bec becomes a more responsible, kinder person, and she learns important things about how it's not nice to sleep with a married man and how she prefers a profession in cooking to a profession in advertising.

It's nothing new. Still, Wildgen's believable details within assist in making this touching and sincere story compelling. Wildgen impresses especially with her descriptions of Kate's daily routine, a vividly comprehensive representation of ALS and the severity with which it affects not only Kate, but also her husband, family, and friends. In particular, two ingenuously provoking scenes may almost be considered mini-masterpieces within the novel. The first arises when Bec and Kate revisit Kate's old home (which her unfaithful ex-husband now shares with another woman) and in a moment of mischievous spite and painful significance, decide to trace an outline of Kate's body onto her ex's mattress:

Before I touched the felt-tip to the fabric just above the crown of Kate's head, I paused. We exchanged a look, and Kate smiled and let her gaze move past me and settle serenely on the ceiling. So I began. I kept the path of the marker as close as I dared without getting ink on her clothes or skin. I wanted the silhouette to be crisp and unmistakable.

As Wildgen captures their suppressed desperation, the only thing that can save Kate and Bec is the very precious friendship they share -- a friendship rendered even more poignantly in the later scenes of Kate's death. This is perhaps the only place in which the novel's plot deviates from the standard storyline: instead of bearing her death with wise courage, Kate is afraid. And this fear occurs despite her ultimate decision to die in her own bed rather than call for help (which would have meant she would spend the rest of her life miserably powerless on a hospital respirator). Despite being brave enough to die sooner instead of later, Kate's final breaths are gasping, frantic, scared -- and Wildgen's writing pierces mercilessly.

But the story isn't over yet for Bec, who must now deal with questions of choice and responsibility regarding Kate's death. Wildgen balances the debate by making it a question of trust, not a question of assisted suicide. Bec is only hired under the condition that she never call 911 without Kate's permission, and she complies with Kate's wishes even in the most grim situation. When Bec later faces the disapproval of Kate's family and friends, who claim they would have called for help if they had been in Bec's position, it has nothing to do with legal rights and everything to do with love -- for in this case, what is loyalty, and what is betrayal?

Wildgen handles the tricky topic with perfect maturity, a skill she shows off earlier in the novel when broaching another uncomfortable issue: sex for the disabled. As Bec says:

I had never even considered how sensitive she might still be -- I'd imagined her rather numb, her flesh inert as clay, from knees to waist. I'd always assumed she was angry at Evan for getting the sex she couldn't have, but now I realized she was capable at least of some things. He just wouldn't give it.

The scenes in which Bec helps Kate use a vibrator could easily have come across as disrespectful or exaggerated, but Wildgen treats these intimate moments with the delicacy and compassion they deserve -- which can be said for her writing as a whole throughout the rest of the novel.

True, if you're expecting something fresh through and through, you'll be a bit disgruntled to find that you've read this story before, or seen it on TV, or watched the movie -- the characters' names and faces being the only big difference. But if you're looking for another tender rendition, something to touch the right chord within, You're Not You is as good as it gets.

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