It was sometime back in spring that I ran across Jessica’s guest review of this book over at Radish Reviews. A romance between a 24-year old brain injured janitor and a brand-new lawyer sounded interesting and, based on Jessica’s comments, it seemed like it might also be a thoughtful take on disability. Despite my long track record of disability-themed books giving me fits, I went into this book expecting good things. I will never learn.
New Life is told in alternating first-person narration and opens in the POV of the hero, a college dropout named Jason Reitmiller who works as a janitor in an office building a few years after an accident left him with a brain injury. Although his language sent my eyebrows up, the book’s opening paragraph was an effective use of first-person.
The first thing you need to know about me is I’m not retarded. Or mentally handicapped I guess is the polite term these days. But whatever you call it, I’m not that. I have a mental disability, but I wasn’t born this way. It took extra stupidity for me to get this way—driving drunk, shooting through the windshield, landing on my noggin, and scrambling my brains permanently. I don’t babble and I don’t drool, except sometimes on my pillow when I’m sleeping, but everybody does that.
After this fine how-do-you-do he comes upon the heroine sobbing alone in an empty stairwell. His first instinct is to turn up his music and ignore her – not only does he want to stay out of it, he doesn’t deal well with having his routine altered – but he eventually decides to go to her and see if she’s ok. She turns out to be a young lawyer named Anna Stevens who is feeling like an impostor after devolving into nervous babble in her first day in court. Jason offers her some tips and tricks for working through anxiety that he’d learned from his therapists over the years, then they go their separate ways. Each found the other attractive, however, and soon they start trying to bump into each other accidentally on purpose.
My problems with the book started almost immediately with how everything Jason did was defined in relation to his disabilities. Anna got a personality that included nervous babble, perfectionism and a need to plan things out for herself that she calls “life mapping.” Jason gets symptoms that include aphasia, migraines and a need to plan things out for himself that his therapist calls “repatterning.” Anna got to just be Anna, the young lawyer with quirks. Jason was always Jason, the brain injured guy with problems.
This shows up in both Jason and Anna’s points of view, but it’s extra frustrating in her POV. After a conversation where Jason switched in “goalie” when going for the term “career goal” Anna thinks this:
I figured it was another symptom of his disability. I’d spent some time that afternoon researching brain injuries and their issues which might include memory loss, mood swings, motor-control issues, or depression.
That’s your first thought, really? No one’s ever mixed up words before when speaking to you? To further emphasize how Anna sees Jason’s disability more than she sees him, there’s this after she goes home that day.
A bag of microwave popcorn later, I was engrossed in a cheesy “based on true events” movie about a guy who’d been beaten nearly to death and how he’d recovered. As I watched the actor pretend to learn to walk, talk, and feed himself again while losing his friends and girlfriend, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jason. Was this truly what it had been like for him, rebuilding his life from scratch?
Jason’s dry sense of humor and seeming lack of bitterness about his situation impressed me. He was different from everybody I knew, particularly my ambitious and impatient ex-boyfriend. Jason had a stillness about him, a sense of depth and thoughtfulness that intrigued me more than I cared to admit. I wanted learn more about the man he’d been before the accident and the person he’d become, but it wasn’t as if our paths naturally crossed. Setting an official “date” might give him the wrong impression, so how could I casually bump into him?
Where do I begin with this? First the author sets up the cliche with that movie about the stereotypical disabled person abandoned by those he loves. Then Anna praises Jason for being an upbeat inspirational cripple. Finally, Anna feels entitled to know his story but without actually dating him. Is he a man or a museum curiosity?
When Jason and Anna do get together, their first date is all about Jason’s problems. He started the day with a stressful social event for his dad’s birthday, then went with his younger sister to a loud movie, before meeting up with Anna to dance at a loud rockabilly club packed with people. All the stress and noise gives him a migraine and the night ends with the heroine driving him home after he vomits in the men’s room. If this isn’t humiliating enough, Anna is in rare form when they get back to his apartment. I mean, check out these quotes.
If I was going to see him more than this one time, if we were going to continue going out, I needed to know more about the extent of his problems and what I was getting myself into.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry, but can you tell me a little more about the injuries from your accident? They’re part of you. If we’re going to spend time together, I think I need to know.
He moved restlessly, signaling his discomfort with the subject of his injuries.
Instead of backing off, I forged ahead and asked, “Will you tell me about your accident? What happened? I know it’s none of my business, but it’s such a big event in your life, we can’t avoid discussing it forever.”
They go on one date, and she feels entitled to badger him for a medical history. It’s telling how little she worries about him rejecting her. She goes about all this like she’s the only one making a choice. His interest in her is assumed.
On that note, what she says to him when he resists taking his shirt off mid-makeout made me flinch.
His dark eyes stared into mine. “I have scars. Worse than the one on my face.”
“I don’t care.” I tugged on his shirt again.
“I do.” He sat up, and I nearly whimpered at the loss of his body covering mine. I gripped the front of his T-shirt, not letting him move too far away.
“Please, don’t be self-conscious. I want to feel your skin against mine. Your scars don’t matter to me. Hey, you’ve seen my tits. It’s only fair.” I kept my tone light, willing him to trust me and reveal more of himself—and I wasn’t thinking of the physical scars.
I held his gaze. “It’s okay, Jason. Now, take off your shirt.” I tried for a playful dominatrix command, except I really meant it. Trust me. Do as I say
I don’t care. What a self-centered thing to say. You’re making out with a guy for the first time. Where do you find this confidence to push him to do something he’s uncomfortable with? Why are you so sure you won’t annoy him and kill the mood? Furthermore, why can’t Jason be allowed his pride? I know what the author was trying to show me, but this reads to me like Anna is doing Jason a favor by offering to overlook his flaws. Like her able-bodied person’s acceptance is the highest compliment and all that matters. God forbid she ask why it bothers him or let him tell her how he feels about his body’s changes. What does he know, right?
I’ll save you the play-by-play and say that the book just really does a number on Jason. Anna others him pretty hard in the first half of the book, then the author spends the second half completely humiliating him. A visit from her snobby parents triggers a massive downward spiral for him. He hooks up with someone from his high school days in a fit of low self-esteem. When Anna finds out, she’s furious with him, and leaves. Jason starts drinking during the day and cutting corners at work. A grand gesture embarrasses Anna at her office in a chapter that caused me so much second-hand embarrassment that I had to skim. Finally, he gets fired, loses his apartment and has to move back in with his parents. What a bleak picture of disability this is. He has a girlfriend who takes him for granted in the first half, then he’s punished mercilessly for hooking up with someone who actually wants him in the second half.
Furthermore, I didn’t feel like I ever got a great idea of who Anna and Jason were together. Most of their conversations were about his accident, recovery or limitations. Even the pillow talk was about that.
I settled back into his warm embrace and lay quietly for several moments. “Tell me something. What was the rehab like after your accident? What did you have to do?”
I wanted to know more about them. Who they were. What they laughed at. What their childhoods were like. I wondered what Jason had gone to college for before he had to drop out. Anna mourns his lost future, but we have no idea what it was.
Final Assessment: I couldn’t feel optimistic about this relationship when Anna held all of the cards at the end. He’s the kept man of a woman who considers him “damaged.” D