Book Review: Me Before You
I didn’t expect to cry while reading Me Before You (2012) by Jojo Moyes but that is exactly what happened. As I turned the final pages on what surprisingly ended up being a book more about two individuals’ own sense of purpose, redemption, and adventure than just another love story I deftly wiped away a few stray tears that had managed to perch themselves on top of my already-drenched cheeks.
At the story’s onset we are met with Louisa Clark – a 26 year old working class girl who jumps from job to job to help her struggling family make ends meet in a small countryside town just outside of London. Louisa is an optimist but she is also timid and unsure of herself. She lives in the shadow of her younger sister and must constantly endure her family’s repeated criticisms of her life choices and “dumpy” body. When she lands a position as a care assistant to intelligent, sharp-tongued, and extremely angry Will Traynor, Louisa can no longer ignore the complacency of her own life and situation as Will forces her to confront her inner demons.
At the beginning the situation is bleak and Louisa feels the all too familiar feeling of being a failure. When she looks at Will she sees a bitter young man full of hate and resentment. Before becoming a quadriplegic, Will was a man of action. He crushed business deals; scaled Yosemite; dined in the fine streets of Paris; and made love to beautiful women the world over. And now he is stuck in a wheelchair. He can’t walk, feed himself, bathe himself or have sex. He is no longer living his life, just existing, and the only control that remains is whether or not he chooses to end his life. For Will the choice is clear. But for everyone else in his life they try their best to dissuade him.
Louis first meets and is immediately hired by Will’s mother, Camilla, who knows her son is miserable. She herself is cold and distant, beaten down by the prospect of her son’s choice of suicide and her failure to change his mind. In Louisa she grasps at a hail mary – a girl whose unique charm and optimism might just be the cure for her sons’ doom and gloom outlook. The first month of their arrangement is one defined by tension. Will is rude, belittling Louisa for her choice of dress and berating her for her indifference to the rest of the world. Louisa considers quitting but her family’s dire financial circumstances forces her to remain. So she remains and accedes to his abuse in silence. It isn’t until in a fit of rage when Will trashes pictures of his former life that Louisa finally calls him out. His brief smile and murmured “I’m sorry” is her first glimpse at the man he truly is inside and the one she comes to love.
Louisa falls in love with Will slowly. There isn’t a single moment when she goes “ah ha” and realizes what has happened. As the reader, Moyes provides us an intimate viewing as their relationship unfolds. She uses the dichotomy between the two lives to drive her storyline. At first sharp and easily distinguishable this line remains an invisible barrier between the two but, as Louisa embraces her courageous side and Will softens, this line blurs. When Louisa discovers Will’s choice to commit suicide she becomes obsessed with the idea of stopping him. Her determination to change his mind leads her down a path of discovery. She goes outside of her comfort zone to prove to him that life, even a sedentary one, is worth living for and devises adventures they can undertake together – a night at the orchestra, a day at the horse races, winetasting, foreign films, and even a 10 day trip to a solitary island. When she tells him she loves him she does so freely, fully confident that he loves her in turn. But it isn’t enough.
Throughout the story we are constantly reminder of Will’s decision. It seems pretty clear to everyone but Louisa that Will has made up his mind. Initially he goes along with her plans to humor her but as he comes to know and respect her he begins to encourage the adventures if only to draw Louisa out of her shell and to help her discover her own path in life. When she realizes that her love is not enough, the crushing realization of how much he has come to mold and exist in her world becomes nearly too much for her to withstand.
It would have been easy for Moyes to end the story on a happy note. She could have rescued her readers from the inevitable onslaught of tears and blubbering and stolen thousands of dollars from the tissue companies. But she didn’t. Moyes challenges us to confront our humanity by constantly reminding us of the burden Will must bear and that life can be cruel. We are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in his situation and to remember that a person’s life, no matter the direction, is for them to lead and no one else.