‘Walking Disaster’ review: Prologue

For anyone who missed my post about this planned review, here is a quick bit of background:

Walking Disaster, part of a series by Jamie McGuire, is apparently one of those romance novels where the supposedly romantic behaviour of the male love interest is actually better described as highly alarming and possibly abusive. It’s a parallel novel to Beautiful Disaster, which told the story of the relationship between Good Girl ™ Abby Abernathy and Bad Boy ™ Travis Maddox, both college students, from Abby’s perspective; this book tells the story from Travis’s perspective. For an gloriously snarky review of Beautiful Disaster, check out Jenny Trout’s blog; at the time I write this, she’s finished Chapters One and Two, with more to come.

Aaaaand here we go!

So, this book retelling a ‘good girl and aggressive love interest’ story from the man’s POV starts out with a prologue describing a traumatic event from the main character’s childhood, seen through his eyes as a child. OK, good, we can all feel comfortable the author isn’t ripping off anyone else’s work.

Even with the sweat on her forehead and the skip in her breath, she didn’t look sick.

The next few pages will establish that this woman (OK, spoiler, it’s his mother) is lying in bed with an IV in, barely able to move or speak, with her eyes almost shut. She’s also thin to the point of boniness with brittle yellow nails and without the usual glow to her skin. To me, that sounds like a person who looks pretty sick. And not just to the point where I can pick up on those subtle signs because I went to medical school, but to the point where it would be quite apparent to her child.

However, apparently child-Travis’s only criterion for deciding whether someone looks sick is their level of retained beauty.

Her skin didn’t have the peachy glow I was used to, and her eyes weren’t as bright, but she was still beautiful. The most beautiful woman I would ever see.

That somehow doesn’t strike me as the main reaction a child would have on seeing his mother in that state. Or even the main reaction an adult would have in later life as he thought back to his childhood memory of seeing his mother in that state.

We then get a bit that’s actually rather nice, about the way his mother always focuses her attention on him:

That’s what I loved about her. When she looked at me, she really saw me. She didn’t look past me to the other dozens of things she needed to do with her day, or tune out my stupid stories. She listened, and it made her really happy. Everyone else seemed to nod without listening, but not her. Never her.

Travis’s mother asks him to come over to the bed, and his father nudges him forward with a few fingers on the back of his neck, which is enough to push Travis several steps forward. I’m not sure that’s physically possible without overbalancing someone? Also, his father is doing this while ‘listening to the nurse’, who is called Becky and first came to their house a few days ago. We aren’t told what Becky is saying to his father that’s so important she has to talk over what is apparently her patient’s deathbed goodbye to her son.

Anyway, what’s happening is that his mother has some final deathbed words of wisdom for him which she is about to pass on:

“Travis, I need you to listen to what I’m going to say, and even more important, I need you to remember. This will be very hard. I’ve been trying to remember things from when I was three, and I…” She trailed off, the pain too big for a bit.

Firstly: OK, we’ve got an age; he’s three. Thanks, I was wondering.

Secondly: what the hell?? Who decides that the best way to give their three-year-old the final message to sustain them through life is by expecting them to memorise it at a time of acute grief and trauma? How’s this poor kid going to feel when he inevitably can’t remember the final words his mother had for him? Especially since she’s telling him how important it is for him to remember, thus piling guilt on top of grief? This is clearly an expected death; why hasn’t she done this already by writing letters for her children, or making recordings, or telling her husband or family what she wants passed on? Bloody hell.

“Pain getting unmanageable, Diane?” Becky said, pushing a needle into Mom’s IV.

As a doctor, I have many questions about this:

Why is Becky not waiting for an answer before leaping in with a potentially oversedating injection just when Diane’s trying to pass on her final message to her son? (Which, yes, is another reason why you don’t leave your final messages to your children to the very last minute like this.) What if Diane was actually just overwhelmed by emotion and her pain was nicely controlled on what she was already getting?

Why was Becky not making sure the pain was under control before this three-year-old got shown in to see his dying mother?

Why the hell is Becky pushing a needle into an IV? You don’t put needles into IVs; you put the syringe directly onto the port to put the stuff in.

Why does Becky apparently have a syringe of opiates drawn up and ready to give, rather than needing to take a minute or two to draw it up? Especially when there are children around? Serious safety hazard.

Why, since this is obviously an ongoing progressive illness and there is a qualified health care professional involved, is Diane’s pain not under much better control with background medication? Why is it getting to the point of being overwhelming for her?

Why is Travis’s mom receiving pain relief via an IV instead of via a syringe driver, which is a considerably better method?

In fairness, the answer to both of the last two could plausibly be ‘Because that’s how pain relief would have been managed then’. This would have been in the 90s sometime; I have no idea how good palliative care was in the US at that time, so maybe the whole thing with the IV and the poor background pain control actually is the sort of thing that was going on then. The answer to the rest of the questions (and plausibly also to those two) is, I suspect, that the author wanted to go for a Heartwringing Deathbed Scene without actually doing any research.

On to Travis’s mom’s final advice:

“First, it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel things. Remember that. Second, be a kid for as long as you can. Play games, Travis. Be silly” – her eyes glossed over – “and you and your brothers take care of each other, and your father. Even when you grow up and move away, it’s important to come home. Okay?”

So far, good advice, even if the timing is terrible. Unfortunately, we then get this:

“One of these days you’re going to fall in love, son. Don’t settle for just anyone. Choose the girl that doesn’t come easy, the one you have to fight for, and then never stop fighting.[…]”

NO, TRAVIS AND READERS, DO NOT DO THIS. Firstly, if someone doesn’t want to be with you, fighting for them is a terrible idea. Respect their wishes, accept it isn’t going to happen, move on. Travis’s mom has just set her son up to be a stalker and harasser. (And, yes, sadly this probably is pretty much the premise of the novel.) Secondly, even apart from consent issues, ‘the one you have to fight for’ is a terrible criterion for choosing your life partner.

Also, thirdly, how about a bit less heteronormativity? You don’t know your son’s going to turn out to be straight, Diane.

Anyway, she tells him never to stop fighting for what he wants and never to forget that she loves him and will always love him.

“Okay,” Becky said, sticking a funny-looking thing in her ears. She held the other end to Mommy’s chest. “Time to rest.”

1. Why does Travis know what an IV is but not what a stethoscope is?

2. Why is Becky listening to Diane’s chest right now anyway? Unless something really sudden and severe has come up (sudden extreme breathlessness might indicate pneumothorax), it’s not going to tell her anything new. And, since Diane is imminently dying, it’s not going to change management.

Becky looked at my dad. “We’re getting close, Mr Maddox. You should probably bring the rest of the boys in to say goodbye.”

Diane’s conscious, responsive, and able to talk coherently. She might well be getting close in the sense of ‘final days’, but the book seems to be trying to imply ‘final minutes’

Travis watches his mother trying to breathe and Becky ‘checking the numbers on the box beside her’. I’m not sure what the box is meant to be, but it sounds like the kind of monitor you’d use in an intensive care setting, which strikes me as both unlikely in what seems to be an in-home setup and pointless in end-of-life care. Still, though, this is another example of “well, I don’t know things weren’t done that way in the USA in the ‘90s”, so this one might not be the author’s fault.

Becky’s eyes seemed to know something I didn’t, and that made my stomach feel sick.

If the ‘something’ is that his mother’s dying, why does he not know that? At least give the poor kid some preparation for what’s happening!

Becky tells Travis that she’s giving his mommy some medicine to make her sleep but she’ll still be able to hear everything he says so he can still tell Mommy that he loves her and that he’ll miss her. Travis shakes his head and says that he doesn’t want to miss her, so it sounds as though he does at least partly understand that she’s dying (otherwise I’d expect his response to have been more along the lines of “Why, is she going away?” or else something completely tangential because he’s three and that’s how three-year-olds actually talk when they’re not in novels). So at least that’s something. Becky says that his mommy wants to be with him very much but Jesus wants her with him. Travis says (pretty reasonably) that he needs her more than Jesus does, and Becky’s response is to smile and kiss his hair, which annoyed me as it seems more like a ‘bless his little heart, isn’t he being adorable’ response when what a child (or an adult, for that matter) in that situation actually needs is for someone to acknowledge their grief and sympathise. (Also, of course, Becky is here invading the personal space of someone who barely knows her. That doesn’t become OK just because the person is a child.)

Dad knocks on the door and brings Travis’s brothers in. By the way, what is this business with one child coming in on his own first? Was Diane trying to make her final act for the family be a demonstration of who really gets Favourite Child status?

The parents went Duggar in naming their children, apparently; Travis’s brothers are called Trenton, Taylor, Tyler and Thomas. That must be fun when the mail arrives.

Also, I saw the names Taylor and Tyler and thought “Betcha they’re twins.” And then I thought “No, Sarah, you don’t know that, Jamie McGuire has probably had enough sense to avoid that particular cutesy trap, let’s not prejudge.” And then Jenny Trout got the first post up for her ‘Beautiful Disaster’ review and I read that and… yeah, they’re twins. Sigh. I hope neither of them get any medical problems requiring specialist care until at least one of them has moved out to a different address, because otherwise their GPs, or whatever you call primary care practitioners in the US, are going to have a grand old time keeping straight which clinic letters go in the file of which of the two boys with the same address, same date of birth and very nearly the same name. And pity the school teachers who have to deal with two boys with such similar details in the same school year. And, of course, Taylor and Tyler themselves, set up from birth to be barely-distinguishable halves of a Cutesy Duo rather than individuals. Parents… no matter how adorably cute it might seem at the time, don’t do this to your children.

Ahem. Sorry. Back to the book. Their father is too choked up to talk to the children, so Becky tells them that she hasn’t been eating or drinking and her body is letting go. That’s actually a good description of the process of dying from a chronic illness, but it might have been more tactful to explain it when they weren’t with Diane; I wonder how she feels about hearing this? Becky tells them that it’s going to be very hard but they should tell her that they love her and miss her and it’s OK for her to go. The children all say their goodbyes, apart from Travis who (understandably) can’t face telling his mother that it’s OK for her to go. Dad sends the children out, telling Thomas to get them ready for bed. How old is Thomas?? Not only is the poor kid getting dumped with taking care of four young and grieving children, this is happening when he’s grieving himself. That’s not good.

Thomas takes Travis out of the bedroom and upstairs to have a bath. On the way up the stairs, they can hear their dad wailing, which I’m guessing is meant to indicate that Diane’s died. Thomas gets Travis undressed and into the tub and is really nice to him, telling him that yesterday Mom told him to take care of him, the twins, and Dad. On the plus side, this sounds as though the other children probably each already had their Final Parting Advice session, so at least Travis being the only one of the children in their mother’s room at the beginning of the chapter wasn’t some kind of weird Favourite Child thing. On the very much minus side, why the bloody hell is Diane setting up her son to be a caretaker child? She should have been telling Dad to take care of Thomas and the rest of the children, not the other way round.

Anyway, while Thomas should never have been dumped with this job in the first place, he is being really sweet about it, telling Travis that they’ll miss Mom together, he’s going to take care of Travis, he’s going to make sure everything’s OK. Poor Travis, meanwhile, is not only frozen in place by shock and grief, but he’s also semi-remembering what his mother said about fighting and interpreting this as meaning that he should be fighting for Mom and that he’s letting her down by not doing so. (There you go; another reason why it’s a really bad idea to give your final dying advice to your three-year-old this way instead of writing it down in a letter for him to read when he’s older.) The prologue finishes with him mentally promising his mother that he’ll always play and he’ll always fight hard. Which is obviously meant to be setting up the plot for later (he fights in an illegal fight club at university, which is where he first meets Abby).

So, that’s the prologue. As I did with CCCFK, I’ll link all further posts on the book back to this post as I write them so that all links are collected in one place.

Chapter links:

Chapter One: Pigeon

Misogynistic main character is misogynistic.

Chapter Two: Backfire

Nothing says ‘romance’ like total disregard for the other person’s safety.

Chapter Three: White Knight

If you like TV Tropes, I think this one counts as Ignored Epiphany.

Chapter Four: Distracted

Would you like that orange juice with a side order of toxic masculinity?

Chapter Five: Roommate

In which Travis’s casual sex predilection really isn’t the problem.

Chapter Six: Shots

What, you’re worried people will think you and I are in a relationship? I know how to fix that; come out to dinner and a club with me somewhere public!

Chapter Seven: Seeing Red

Incredibly, the brilliant plan from Chapter Six is creating some problems.

Chapter Eight: Oz

This book finds a completely different way to be awful.

Chapter Nine: Crushed

The one with the bet.

Chapter Ten: Broken. Part One.

How not to deal with setbacks in life.

Chapter Ten, Part Two

In case you hadn’t had enough pathological jealousy yet…

Chapter Eleven: Cold Bitch

Boring chapter is boring.

Chapter Twelve: Virgin

Well, someone has to be in a dichotomy with all those whores.

Chapter Thirteen: Porcelain

Alcohol abuse is fun and sexy, folks!

Chapter Fourteen: Oz (yes, again)

Some violence happened. Did some plot happen? Did I fall asleep?

Chapter Fifteen: Tomorrow

They have sex. No, Travis isn’t as good at it as he thinks.

Chapter Sixteen: Space and Time

Abby wants those things, but she’s not going to get them from Travis.

Chapter Seventeen: Lowball. Part One.

They finally get together. Strangely enough, this fails to cure Travis’s anger issues.

Chapter Eighteen: Lucky Thirteen

Amazingly, we get a chapter with some actual plot and not much dysfunction.