Torn (Up): Jojo Moyes, Me Before You

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.

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17 Responses to Torn (Up): Jojo Moyes, Me Before You

  1. Interesting. I read the spoiler, and I won’t be able to bring myself to read this. But I am reminded of a book I hated. And I cannot remember the title or author; perhaps I’ve purged it from memory. But I was really, really angry, because one of the (main) characters committed suicide, and it felt like he was a catalyst for the heroine’s growth, so she could a) become a concert pianist and b) return to her first love. The character who committed suicide was mentally ill.

    Really well written book, and I still get mad thinking about it.

    I’m not saying this book is that book. But it sounds like there’s a bit of a parallel in terms of our reading of the the respective books.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that when a writer ventures into this difficult territory, she will never please every reader. This is a risky book in some ways–in others, it plays it too safe and neat.

  2. kaetrin says:

    This book would make me all rage-y, no doubt about it. 98% of what I read is genre romance but what I read the rest of the time has a hopeful or uplifting ending in some way but I don’t think I’d be able to find any joy at the end of this one. I’ve heard great things but it is not for me! 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The ending IS uplifting in many ways. And not just for Louisa but for Will. Helping her to start a new life is a way he shows his love. It was just tainted for me by the alternate reading.

  3. rosario001 says:

    OK, comment on the spoilers above, so I guess the comment is a SPOILER!!! as well.

    I didn’t feel it was Will’s death that set Louisa free, in the sense that it didn’t really require his death for her to break out of the prison she’d placed herself in. It was her relationship with the live Will that did it. That could be its own kind of wallbanging (magical disabled person makes the able-bodied person see life differently), but the way I read it, that wasn’t what Moyes did. My interpretation was that Will was the first person Louisa allowed through her barriers and to actually *see* her (partly because it felt unfair not to reciprocate in some way after the enforced intimacy the other way), and that it was having someone do that and see a person different from the way Louisa saw herself that did it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, you’re right, and she says to him that she could go back to school, etc. and just be his partner, not his paid caregiver. I thought the reciprocity in their relationship was very well done. Yet still, the ending didn’t “tie her down” to what would have been a very difficult relationship to sustain. Especially because of the way he sends her to Paris, it’s like she’s living the life he no longer can.

      • Rosario says:

        But did you get the feeling that this (not tying her down to that relationship) was what the ending was about, narratively? I read it as all about Will, about him being able to do what he felt was best for himself.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I thought it could be read both ways, though I think that yours was the *intended* reading. And that’s why the book bothered me.

  4. Ridley says:

    That spoiler really makes me feel awful. I think reading that book would land me in therapy for real.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought a lot about you when I was reading this, and how you might respond. I’m pretty sure that’s part of why I read it the way I did–I might not even have seen that potential interpretation if not for your conversations about disability in romance.

  5. kaetrin says:

    Liz, does the book differentiate at all from assisted suicide for those with a terminal illness and those in Will’s position? Or is Will’s condition regarded as terminal? I have mixed feelings about euthanasia for terminal illness and therefore no firm view other than general discomfort (in the sense that I can see both sides and both sides are awful, in my view, in one way or another) . But my view on suicide in non-terminal illness circumstances is more clear – it seems… wasteful. I had an uncle who committed suicide (completely different circumstances to Will) and I’m sure that has informed my view.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      No, that isn’t really addressed. It is true that Will’s condition is likely to worsen and he faces increasing pain and limitation. But I think essentially he chooses suicide because he–not FAILS to adapt, but REFUSES to adapt, to a life that is not of his choosing, that he can’t control. In some ways, of course, that is a selfish choice (and I think it’s interesting that the short prologue scene shows him as kind of a self-centered guy, so he hasn’t really changed), and other characters talk about that.

      • M-Moo says:

        This was my main issue with the book – Will’s attitude that it would be better to be dead than disabled really upset me and I agree seems thankless and wasteful. I know this is how some people feel but I really felt the need to read an uplifting book about a paraplegic who is able to cope with the harsh blow they have been dealt and find joy in life as an antidote. The book was well-written, and the characters well developed, I just really struggled with the lack of a stronger counter-balance to Will’s choice when as a reader I wanted to rage against it.

  6. Liz Mc2 says:

    I really appreciate the conversation here and on Twitter, and I think it’s helped clarify for me why I found the ending troubling. It’s because it *is* uplifting in some ways, and Will’s death partly enables that uplift, though it’s not a necessary condition of it. It’s not at all that his death is a “happy” ending, or that the book suggests it’s “the best thing.” It’s best in *his* eyes, but no one else thinks so, and the narrative doesn’t endorse that. I’m not sure I can be clearer than that, and it’s not that clear. I just felt that the narrative didn’t quite escape *using* his character.

  7. Great review and conversation. I can’t get around the alternative reading (disabled person as vehicle for able person’s growth arc). I haven’t read the book, obviously, and I’m not going to, but I get the feeling that Louisa has this strong growth arc through the book and Will doesn’t. Despite falling in love and knowing that he has changed Louisa’s life for the better, he still wants at the end what he wanted at the beginning. So what does that say? Why does love change her but not him? It’s the asymmetry that bothers me. If she changes and he doesn’t, it’s her book, and he’s the vehicle for her change, regardless of his physical condition. His disability makes it worse, because in the end he is as defined by his disability as he was in the beginning. Why does everyone accede to his wish anyway? We wouldn’t do that with a non-disabled person, so aren’t we assuming something about the awfulness of disability by doing that? Why do we take his word for the futility of his life and treat his attitude as rational when we wouldn’t for someone who didn’t have a physical issue but a psychological one?

    But I could be inferring all kinds of wrong things, since I’m talking about something I haven’t read.

  8. I just finished the book. it was heartbreaking witty and more like all review said.
    but I screamed out loud oooooh nooooooo!!!

    how can he choose to be dead instead of not even trying to live with Lou? not even few months more. when he said you dont know this is not enough. I cannot live like this in this chair.
    OMG
    Can he be more selfisher than this?
    well yes it must be fucking awful to be in wheelchair after full life he had before but I still cannot accept the end.
    I was crying many times when they finally found each other’s heart and beach holiday but not at the end.

    I dont know its just me but I feel the book finished so suddenly after beach holiday, I think there should be more grasp on the life or death matter after they returned.

    I still do believe life is worth living if there are people you love and they love you back even though your physical and emotional (sometimes) conditions are not comfortable.

    I am still so angry with ending so much

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