So crap, I say I’m going to write quick and dirty reviews for the next little while and then I go and read Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You and have all these complicated mixed feelings.
Louisa Clark, a rather aimless young woman, takes a job as a caregiver for Will Traynor. She’s working-class, wears kooky clothes, and has hardly ever left her small town. Will’s rich and before his spinal cord injury (he’s quadriplegic) he was an adventure travel, business tycoon, alpha player kind of guy. They change each others’ lives. The novel is (mostly) not melodramatic or manipulative, but it is a tear-jerker and I am constitutionally averse to that. Part of my mixed feelings were because I resisted the book. For balance, here are two glowing reviews from people who surrendered to the tears: AnimeJune and Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times Book Review. I can’t really discuss how I feel without talking about the ending, but I’ll put that at the end of the review with spoiler warnings (I will say I peeked and that didn’t “spoil” the book for me). [ETA: Comments will be spoilery too!]
There’s a lot to love about this book. The low-key, conversational narration (first-person by Louisa, with a few short sections giving secondary character POVs) helps to dial back the melodrama and make the emotion feel earned. The characters are all more than they first appear, especially Louisa and Will: at first I thought this was going to be all Manic Pixie Dream Girl Brings Joy to Bitter Crippled Man and it kind of is but is also way more complicated and interesting and real than that.
I enjoyed the patterning of the narrative; at first Lou and Will seem like opposites, but gradually their similarities are revealed. Both are trapped in their lives, neither feels free to make choices, each pushes the other towards a fuller life. Each, at times, resents being treated as a “project” by the other: “God, Will. I wish you’d stop telling me what to do,” Louisa cries. He feels the same. They understand each other in a way no one else can, and it’s no surprise that they come to love each other. I didn’t think this parallelism ever became too tidy or obvious, nor does Moyes fall into the trap of making Will’s disability some kind of metaphor–paraplegia? No big deal, we’re all trapped by life in some ways. It’s always clear that Louisa has the power to remake her life in ways Will no longer can.
So there’s the good. Now my problems. The characters are more than they first appear, but they’re also grounded in some (stereo)types that the book doesn’t really question. For example, Louisa’s working-class family is loving and argumentative and crammed together in a messy house. Will’s upper-class one is cold and distant, perfect on the surface but messed up underneath.
Will never gets a point of view, except in the shallow 3rd person of the prologue. This is so even though there are short POV scenes from Lou’s sister and Will’s parents and nurse. I do think that Will emerges as a whole person through his words and actions, but the fact that we’re kept at a distance from him makes this to some extent Louisa’s story (even the title, Me Before You, suggests that). Given the trajectory of the book, that troubled me.
SPOILERS START HERE. GIANT SPOILERS. Highlight to view.
Part way through we, with Louisa, learn that Will has attempted suicide. He’s asked his parents to take him to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, and they have agreed provided he waits six months. Louisa’s been hired in the hope that she’ll cheer him up and give him the will to live. She throws herself whole-heartedly into this project. She falls in love with Will, and he with her, but in the end that isn’t enough to make him choose life.
I support people’s right to make that choice. I think Moyes established Will as someone who would make that choice. And I appreciated the message that love is not enough (it’s kind of an anti-genre Romance message, in some ways, but it’s true). He recognizes that he could have a good, happy life with Louisa, but it still isn’t the life he wants, and he’s someone who has previously made of his life whatever he wishes to. He faces increasing pain and frequent infection. The only choice he can make freely is to die.
I don’t think that any one fictional character has to stand in for all disabled people everywhere. Louisa has online conversations with others with spinal cord injuries who have adapted to life with a disability. I didn’t feel that Moyes ever suggested there were easy answers. The ending is fittingly messy.
But the fact remains that Will’s death quite literally sets Louisa free, though by then it isn’t a freedom she wants. He leaves her money to buy a house and pay for college, to start a new, fuller life. One way to read this book is as the story of a disabled character who exists simply as a catalyst for the able-bodied character’s growth and change. I don’t think that’s the only way to read it. But seeing that reading was part of my resistance to this book, and what left me torn about it. Will and Louisa seem very real; I loved them and I’ll be thinking about them for a while. But part of me is also angry–not about Will’s death, but about his role in Louisa’s life. Moyes is a great storyteller, and I’ll read her again. This book, though, is troubling, and not always in ways I think she intended.