Title: “Me Before You”
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publishing house: Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Year of publication: 2012
Literary Awards: New York Times’ Bestseller, The Reading List Award for Women’s Fiction (2014), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013).
Contemporary literature can hardly give fresh romance anymore, with dominant authors of the genre attempting pretty much every possible scenario and every writing technique. For me, romantic lit soon became tiring, repetitive and ridiculously predictable, and maybe this is what discouraged me from reading Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You in the first place. I just wasn’t up for a sappy love story between a quirky young woman trapped in the routine of an uneventful life and a disabled man rediscovering the joy of living, not even after watching the long-awaited film adaptation starring Sam Claflin (from The Hunger Games) and Emilia Clarke (from Game of Thrones).
After plodding along for more than four months, I finished Me Before You and now I feel ready to talk about the aspects the promotion for the book and the movie has decided to neglect, but that eventually struck me the most.
The story of Me Before You takes place in Stortford, an English historic market town where everyone knows everyone. 26-year-old Louisa Clark is happy with the little town life she is living, torn between her barista job at the Buttered Bun, assisting her fitness-obsessed boyfriend’s daily training and dealing with her loud, sometimes silly family. Redundancy makes Louisa question her life purpose, and responsibility for her family’s financial situation prompts her to accept an unusual job offer: carer for a quadriplegic man (paralysed from neck down). This is how Louisa meets Will Traynor, a once successful businessman whose professional ascent was dramatically stopped by a tragic accident. Beyond the actual, physical help Louisa is required to offer Will, the book follows a quest for learning to love and enjoy life again, despite its dire circumstances. Louisa is now determined to teach Will Traynor about the joy of being alive.
Me Before You was an enjoyable read. Not as extraordinary as I thought it would be, but if anything, heartbreaking and contemplative. If Moyes didn’t seem that amazing of a writer, the effect of the book lingers for a long time and makes yourself wonder about things you might have never pondered over before. It wasn’t the style that stayed with me, simple but vivid, but the absolutely mind-boggling questions and moral debates that the book attempts to discuss in a clear, but disarming manner. And what frustrated me the most was the fact that the aspects that I appreciated and mulled over were significantly disregarded by both the movie adaptation and the general consumption of the book itself.
– Important SPOILERS ahead!
Despite being advertised as a love story involving a rather close-minded female protagonist and a man struggling with a disability, Me Before You didn’t really strike me as romantic. Actually, I’d dare go further and say that Moyes’ characters haven’t fallen in love at all. Throughout the progression of the novel, Louisa and Will spend a significant amount of time together, they start off by not being fond of each other’s presence but end up being friends and confidants and, Moyes would want us to believe, fall in love as a result of their physical and emotional intimacy. And despite using the word ‘love’ several times, despite pinpointing romantic interest as a reason for their proximity and despite actually hinting at sexual desire, this plot twist simply didn’t seem believable to me.
At the end of the day, both Louisa and Will are affected, first and foremost, by the dreadful circumstances they share. Their alleged love would rather stem from their shared suffering, so then how much of it is actually romance? Louisa is obsessed with trying to convince Will that life is worth living, up to the point where she gives up on independently living her own. Will is keen on mentoring Louisa and showing her all the things she missed while she lived her life solely within the limits of Stortfold and its little town intrigues. I feel like the characters were so fierce about achieving these goals, that little space was actually left for romance to develop. Of course, it could be argued that both Louisa and Will are performing a sacrifice for the sake of the other, which would happen because they are in love. Still, the romance didn’t convince me.
The main characters of the novel made the romantic vibe even less authentic. Opposites may attract, but not when it comes to social status. In a nutshell: working class vs. upper class, modest financial means vs. ridiculous wealth, simplicity and crudeness vs. a more sophisticated, educated attitude towards life. Surprisingly, dramatic differences appear in Louisa and Will’s choice of past lovers, when you think of Patrick, a graceless sports fanatic utterly ignorant to Louisa’s needs, and Alicia, who despite being shallow, is capable of emotional empathy and some romantic effort. Louisa and Will come from two completely different worlds, and the chances of them falling in love in a context other than the one bringing them together in the first place seem to be extremely slim. Ironically, Will himself confirms this assumption later in the book.
I would label Me Before You as a drama rather than a love story, due to the powerful moral debate that it brings up for discussion. Moyes introduces a challenging question: how much is one actually in charge of their own existence? Where does our choice begin and end? And how much can we actually control the choice of another? Tired of having to depend on somebody when performing any kind of activity, and desolated with the way he has to live his life, Will decides to commit assisted suicide with the help of Swiss non-profit organisation Dignitas. Once his intentions are revealed to Louisa (and thereby, to the reader as well) the aim of the game changes completely and all the characters involved start playing a role, and consequently join a side: we have those who support Will’s decision (other quadriplegics that Louisa talks to on web forums, while his family has given him permission and silently prays that he’ll change his mind) and those who disagree with it (Louisa, Louisa’s family and pretty much everybody else). Out of them all, Louisa experiences an outstanding evolution, from hating Will’s intention and hating him for it, to understanding the reasoning behind it and finally embracing it. The story ends, but the question still remains and the reader is encouraged to think for themselves: in such circumstances, what is the moral, correct, good thing to do? This book challenged me to do a lot of thinking on the topic, and that is probably what I liked the most about it, and definitely what made me reminisce this read later.
Another social aspect that is thoroughly analysed in the book (and yet, not even mentioned in the film) stems from Louisa’s memories surrounding an event that, after being repressed for almost a decade, is coming to light by the second half of the novel: when still in high school, Louisa was sexually assaulted by a group of boys she was hanging out with. Little is revealed about what actually happened, but it is known that this incident changed Louisa’s approach to life for good, up to the point where she becomes comfortable with the little town life of Stortfold and she is actually scared of whatever lies beyond. Will is the one helping Louisa receive closure from this perspective, by admitting what she is too scared to tell herself all along: the assault was not her fault and her life should not come down to it. Despite being a minor element in the plot, it struck a sensitive chord with me, as it is very relevant for today’s rape culture and the impact it has on actual such events – so kudos to the author for that.
There are a few other things I did enjoy about the novel: the witty sense of humour of the main characters, the author’s ability of painting the authentic atmosphere of a British household, the great diversity of characters and the way the story took me to unconventional places without stretching out too much and becoming phony. The read itself was easy and enjoyable, quite accessible for any kind of reader. The book does have a sequel, but at this point, I don’t exactly feel like there is anything left to say about Louisa and everyone else. Would their story be of any interest to me without Will’s contribution to it? I guess I have to read the book to find out, but at this point I am not very sure.
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes, is a touching story meant to make you wonder, but most of all, make you appreciate. Appreciate life and each and every tiny thing it has in store for you, as well as appreciate your freedom of choice, the limited radius within which you are in control of your own destiny. While discussing a variety of themes and using a simple, yet compelling style, Me Before You is a book for everyone and manages to speak to the heart, hence why I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone willing to reflect and weep a bit over a book.