October 2007

Krista Walton

fiction

You're Not You by Michelle Wildgen

In Michelle Wildgen's debut novel, You're Not You, Bec is an ambivalent college sophomore who only sporadically attends class and is having an affair with a married Ph.D. student. Adrift and bored with her waitressing job, she answers an ad for a caretaker for a woman with Lou Gehrig's disease in the hopes that it will boost her self-esteem and impress her friends. Her charge is Kate, a married woman in her mid-thirties who, despite being all but entirely incapacitated, remains polished, glamorous, and strong-willed. Kate and her husband, Evan, seem to have adjusted to their circumstances as best as they can, and, despite a rocky beginning, Bec soon becomes an indispensable part of their household, learning to care for Kate (which includes everything from applying Kate's makeup to helping her use the bathroom) while building a deep friendship with her.

It soon becomes clear that You're Not You is Bec's bildungsroman, and her maturation is marked by, of all things, an increasingly sophisticated palate. Bec initially favors beer gardens and cheap takeout to wine and organic produce, but under Kate's influence she learns to appreciate the simplicity of making a delicious meal out of excellent-quality ingredients. Wildgen was featured in 2004's Best Food Writing, and so it is no surprise that some of the most vivid writing in You're Not You is about food: "I was holding a quart of ground-cherries," notes Bec. "They looked like tiny Japanese lanterns, each greenish-gold berry encased in a papery shell, crisp as an insect's wing."

Just as Bec seems to have found her niche in Kate's life, Kate's marriage to Evan falls apart, mostly because Kate refuses to make concessions she wouldn't make if she didn't have Lou Gehrig's: Evan wants her permission to carry on an affair, which she refuses to give. Bec's responsibilities increase and she eventually moves in with Kate to help out in Evan's absence. Most people can live with Lou Gehrig's for two to five years; when Bec meet's Kate, she had been diagnosed more than three years ago. So as Kate's disease progresses, she relies on and trusts Bec more and more, even imploring Bec not to call an ambulance without Kate's explicit permission. When the inevitable happens, Bec's devastation and guilt in the aftermath is the most emotional -- and believable -- part of her coming-of-age.

Of course, the central plot is painfully familiar -- the dying character helps the living appreciate life -- but Wildgen's characters are well-crafted, and, though not always successful, she does her best to steer clear of trite moments. (In a scene where Bec acknowledges how much she's learned from Kate, she jokes, "Oh my god... You think I'm like those TV movies where the person with the disease teaches everyone how to live," to which Kate deadpans, "It's always so nice of us.") Perhaps it's that essential familiarity of the story that makes You're Not You, despite being an initially engrossing read, seem tedious by the end.

You’re Not You by Michelle Wildgen
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 0312352298
288 pages