inSide Books: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
When I finished this novel, I didn’t want to review it; I wanted to reread it. Which might seem perverse if you know that for most of the last hundred pages I was dissolved in tears. Jojo Moyes, the writer who produced this emotional typhoon, knows very well that “Me Before You” — a novel that has already floated high on Britain’s best-seller lists — is, as British critical consensus affirms, “a real weepy.” And yet, unlike other novels that have achieved their mood-melting powers through calculated infusions of treacle — Erich Segal’s “Love Story” comes immediately to mind — Moyes’s story provokes tears that are redemptive, the opposite of gratuitous. Some situations, she forces the reader to recognize, really are worth crying over.
“Me Before You” is a love story and a family story, but above all it’s a story of the bravery and sustained effort needed to redirect the path of a life once it’s been pushed off course. In the early months of 2009, Louisa (Lou) Clark, a 26-year-old working-class girl, lands a position as a “care assistant” to an intelligent, wealthy and very angry 35-year-old man named Will Traynor, who has spent the past two years as a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorbike. It is Will’s mother, Camilla (with whom he has a chilly relationship), who hires Louisa, and she does so out of desperation. She knows her son is miserable. She already employs a nurse to attend to his medical needs, but she hopes that somehow Louisa might boost his morale.
At the novel’s outset, the prospects for this appear bleak. With his rudeness and his fits of temper, Will resembles Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester, albeit in a wheelchair. But Louisa Clark is no Jane Eyre, even if, like Brontë’s heroine, she is small, dark-haired and unprepossessing — “one of the invisibles,” as she herself puts it. But being with Will requires backbone. His own no longer works, but for her to keep her job, she will have to acquire one.
Hardly introspective and not at all intellectual, Lou lives in a “sleepy market town” where the largest employer is a National Trust castle with a shrubbery maze. There, at the age of 20, she was spooked by a run-in with boys and beer, an encounter that robbed her of the confidence to explore the world beyond her village. Now, almost seven years later, she still lives at home with her parents, sleeping in a windowless closet so her unemployed younger sister, Katrina, a single mother, can occupy the larger bedroom. Lou works as a waitress in a cafe, a job that allows her to lead a straitened but cozy existence and help to support her family. And although she has a steady boyfriend — a personal trainer named Patrick with “the kind of face that became instantly invisible in crowds” (much like her own) — neither feels the urge to discuss marriage.
When the cafe shuts down, Lou must find a new job. Unskilled as she is, what work can she do? She has the full use of her limbs, but she’s emotionally paralyzed. To take a job caring for a man like Will is terrifying, but her family’s financial difficulties allow her no choice. As she gets to know her combative patient, Lou belatedly wrestles with her own passivity. “Shoved up so hard against someone else’s life,” she reflects, “forces you to rethink your idea of who you are.”
Lou has never fully lived; Will has, but no longer can. In health, he had exhilarated in “crushing people in business deals.” He had scaled rock faces at Yosemite, swum in volcanic springs in Iceland, sampled warm croissants in the Marais and had his pick of glamorous, leggy girlfriends. After the accident, he can’t walk, can’t feed himself, can’t have sex. The only power he believes he retains is the power to end his life; and, as a man of action, he wants to exercise that power. But in Lou, he discovers an unexpected outlet for his thwarted energies: teaching her how to exert her own autonomy. “You cut yourself off from all sorts of experiences because you tell yourself you are ‘not that sort of person,’ ” he scolds her. “You’ve done nothing, been nowhere. How do you have the faintest idea what kind of person you are?” Frustrated by her inaction, he rails, “Promise me you won’t spend the rest of your life stuck around this bloody parody of a place mat.” “Then tell me where I should go,” Lou demands. Deciding that the only chance she has of getting Will to take an interest in his own future is to make him take an interest in hers, she devises character-building adventures they can undertake together for her benefit. Might it work?
Moyes disarms the reader with the normalcy of her voice. Her language is never lofty; she exposes her characters’ flaws with the literary equivalent of a fluorescent bulb’s naked light. The matter-of-fact language of Lou and Will’s conversations and thoughts, and the starkness of their surroundings — Lou’s humble, cramped family house; Will’s disability-adapted annex with the “white metal and plastic hoist” over the bath — magnify the poignancy of their friendship. Moyes’s pacing is ingenious; you don’t quite notice when the wheelchair moves forward, but it does, despite the resistance of the man within it and the woman behind it.
Lou seems to make Will at least “halfway happy,” and her determination to impress him leads her to read improving authors, to watch foreign movies, even to join the once-fearful local library, where she uses the computer to communicate with other caregivers and quadriplegics. Reading these e-mail exchanges is a reminder that the fictional burden borne by Will Traynor is shared by thousands of real people and that the anxieties Lou faces are shared by still more. This is a love story that’s eloquent not so much in its delivery as in its humanity.
It’s a curious phenomenon that in this digital age — in which thoughts that once emerged quietly and gradually on paper have been overtaken by instantaneous visual and audio impressions that are swiftly taken in without really being absorbed — the rapt viewer sometimes needs to be jarred, slowed down and forced to look inward. In “Me Before You,” circumstances lead noncontemplative people to contemplation. When Lou, months into her caregiver job, sits in a hospital room during one of Will’s illnesses, she holds his “good man’s hands — attractive and even, with squared-off fingers,” and feels “oddly reassured by how they felt in my own.” She admires “the calluses that told of a life not entirely lived behind a desk, at the pink seashell nails that would always have to be trimmed by somebody else.” Moyes’s heroine, if Lou can be so styled, may not be heroic; her male counterpart may be nobody’s idea of a leading man — and yet with Lou and Will she has created an affair to remember.
Republished from the New York Times.