I put Me Before You on my to-read list after reading ModernLove’s review back in February. The emotional response she had to the book elevated it from a maybe read to a definitely read (the book was already on my radar given Jen K’s, Malin’s, and HelloKatieO’s reviews from CBR5).
Here is what I wrote on Goodreads immediately following completing the novel: “This fucking book. Christ, I can’t even find the words right now. It’s poignant, and heart-rending, and should come with tissues.” I usually write spoiler free reviews, but I just don’t know how to talk about this book without spoiling the shit out of it. I’ve been trying for nearly a week to figure it out, so instead I’m going to stop beating myself up about it and just write about what I read and how it made me feel and what it made me think. For those of you avoiding spoilers here’s where I suggest you leave. Know that Jojo Moyes crafted two beautifully well rounded protagonists who affect the courses of each other’s lives in big ways, and perhaps more importantly in small ways. Read it.
Ok, here we go into the spoiling (and inspecting some things about me):
Me Before You is the story of Louisa Clark the unexpected caregiver of Will Traynor, suicidal quadriplegic and the ways their relationship change them. When Lou takes the job, she doesn’t know that Will is suicidal, and that he has already attempted suicide once, and was very nearly successful. Through the course of the book Lou learns about taking care of Will and then when she decides she cannot sit on the sidelines and let Will wait out the six months he has given his family, she launches on her mission to make Will see what there is to live for in his new life.
I found that Ms. Moyes handled the difficult issues of severe disability and the moral grey areas around assisted suicide with aplomb. She doesn’t judge one way or the other in her authorial voice and by having Lou go online to a variety of message boards and forums for those with disabilities and their caregivers Ms. Moyes is able to present both sides without landing on one or the other as the “right” answer. There are characters in the book that make it clear that it is possible to live with severe disabilities and find that they have things left to live for. It is also clear in other characters that there are those who find themselves unable to readjust their expectations in life. Will is of the second category.
I was able to relate to Will’s experience quite easily and that, to me, says a great deal about the quality of Ms. Moyes writing. By chronicling the typical day to day pains and struggles, mostly from Nathan Will’s nurse telling Lou what life is like for Will, I was able to sink into Will’s mental state. We all have something about us that makes us different, or other, and being able to tap into what that feels like, and then ramp it up I could immediately understand Will’s reticence to do the things Lou suggests as part of her master plan. And on the grander scale, I believe in a person’s right to choose assisted suicide given intractable suffering which cannot be alleviated. This is certainly the case Will finds himself in. This book made me think about what holding that belief really means. For much of the book I was wishing, like Lou, that Will would change his mind. That he would see what Lou valued as being worth living for (by the end of the book a life with her) and decide to alter his plans.
“You still don’t get it, Clark, do you?” I could hear the smile in his voice. “It’s not your choice.”
I subsequently had my ass handed to me by a work of fiction, as Will continually reminds Lou that perhaps the most difficult thing for him now that he is in the chair is that everyone decides for him, instead of letting him decide for himself. And I as the reader was also trying to decide for him. I thought I knew best. This led me to think about all of the times that I had actively wished against something for those in my life because it didn’t match what I wanted, or had planned. The boyfriend I didn’t want to move away to grad school, the friend who I didn’t want searching for a new job because I needed her with me, not considering what is really best for her.
This all made me feel like a shitty individual, I’m not going to lie to you. But that’s why I rated this book five stars. The very good modern fiction makes you examine things about your life and your self. Oh, and its brillantly, sarcastically funny. I just can’t seem to find a quote that encapsulates the hilarious way in which Lou and Will speak to each other.
Moving on from thinking about the ethical gray areas of assisted suicide, Ms. Moyes’ use of descriptive language is some of the best I’ve read in a long time. To illustrate here’s Lou describing her first encounter with a live classical music performance, which she is only attending so Will attends as well It is perhaps the best description of what music can do, and it’s hidden in this book and caught me completely by surprise.
“They began to tune up, and suddenly the auditorium was filled with a single sound – the most alive, three-dimensional thing I had ever heard. It made the hairs on my skin stand up, my breath catch in my throat….I felt the music like a physical thing; it didn’t just sit in my ears, it flowed through me, around me, made my senses vibrate. It made my skin prickle and my palms dampen…It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.”
There is a love story here, and it’s to the book’s benefit that the most important narrative throughline isn’t the romantic feelings that develop between Louisa and Will as the novel progresses. The real meat of the story is the blossoming that Lou does once she overcomes her initial fears about working with Will as we find him at the beginning of the story and she begins to find some common ground with him and eventually their relationship develops. The way Will gently pushes and guides Lou into being a more active and engaged person is the ultimate love story, not the life together Lou offers Will while they are on Mauritius. It’s another thing that I can relate to easily, knowing that in theory I am living a small life and it’s within my power to start living a larger one, I only have to choose.
“Push yourself. Don’t Settle. Just live well. Just LIVE.”
There is also the story of the love that Will and Lou have for each other. And that is what makes the final act of this book so agonizing. At the end of the six months Lou confesses her love to Will, but it isn’t enough to change his mind. Part of me wants to quote the entire portion of the book which takes place in Switzerland, because it is so heartbreakingly beautiful, but everyone deserves to read it for themselves, so instead a look at what their love means to each other.
“I know this isn’t a conventional love story. I know there are all sorts of reasons I shouldn’t even be saying what I am. But I love you. I do. I knew it when I left Patrick. And I think you might even love me a little bit.”
“Shhh. Just listen. You, of all people. Listen to what Im saying. This…tonight…is the most wonderful thing you could have done for me. What you have told me, what you have done in bringing me here…knowing that, somehow, from that complete arse, I was at the start of this, you managed to salvage something to love is astonishing to me. But…I need it to end here. No more chair. No more pneumonia. No more burning limbs. No more pain and tiredness and waking up every morning already wishing it was over. When we get back, I am still going to go to Switzerland. And if you do love me, Clark, as you say you do, the thing that would make me happier than anything is if you would come with me. So I’m asking you – if you feel the things you say you feel – then do it. Be with me. Give me the end I’m hoping for.”
While I was reading the book I kept coming back to the title, and wondering who the Me was and who the You was. By the end, I came to the decision that the Me was Lou and the You was Will, and not just because she survives him, but because of the enormous change he made in her life. As she describes it:
“All I can say is that you make me… you make me into someone I couldn’t even imagine. You make me happy, even when you’re awful. I would rather be with you – even the you that you seem to think is diminished – than with anyone else in the world.”
And because of how he describes it:
“I am conscious that knowing me has caused you pain, and grief, and I hope that one day when you are less angry with me and less upset you will see not just that I could only have done the thing that I did, but also that this will help you live a really good life, a better life, than if you hadn’t met me.”
Go read this book.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.