Themes Explored: quality of life, familial relations, death, life, meaning of life, relationships, romance, heartbreak, assisted suicide, drama, realism, sadness, happiness, rejuvenation, divorce, poverty, work ethic, sexual assault, growing up, coming-of-age, recognizing potential, male-female relationships, quadriplegia, contemporary fiction, recession, joblessness, job hunting
Synopsis: Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.
What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.
Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.
What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time. (From Goodreads)
~SPOILER ALERT: The movie adaptation is opening on June 3rd. Some elements of this review may spoil parts of the movie if you have not read already read the book~
Review: I believe one of the hallmarks of a good author is the ability to make the reader feel intense emotion. I can count on one hand the number of books that have moved me to tears, this being one of them. While I consider myself a closeted romantic, I am not a fan of overly clichéd romance novels. You know the ones where the headstrong poor girl ends up with the rich guy who is just longing for someone who understands him; or vice versa. Throw in some romantic triangle, enormous misunderstanding, and make up scenes, and bam, you have most romantic novels ever written. I tend to prefer the more organic and realistic romances, even if there is a bittersweet ending. Me Before You appeals to me because it feels like something that could happen in real life. Also, it is written exceedingly well and does not come across as judgmental. Moyes does a pretty good job showing both sides to the argument about euthanasia, also known as assisted suicide.
The story begins after Louisa “Lou” Clark is unexpectedly laid off from her job at the local café. Desperate for work, she reluctantly accepts a six-month job as an in-home assistant for a disabled man. Will Traynor is a 35-year-old quadriplegic who is desperately unhappy. Before an unfortunate motorcycle incident left him in a wheelchair, Will lived large. He came from a wealthy family, had a high paying job at a financial firm in London, had a gorgeous high-society girlfriend, went on adventurous holidays all over the world, and had the world at his feet. Now he is permanently confined to a wheelchair and lives on his parents’ small estate in Stortfold. Due to his quadriplegia, he is entirely dependent on his male nurse for everything and hates every moment. Lou is hired by Mrs. Traynor to fulfill the impossible the task of cheering up her bitter, enraged, and sarcastic son who wants to die.
Quadriplegia is a form of paralysis caused by illness or injury to the spinal cord that results in the partial or total loss of use of all four limbs and torso. The loss is usually sensory and motor, which means that both sensation and control are lost. Due to the lack of movement, quadriplegics are at heightened risk of developing blood clots, muscle atrophy, pneumonia, bladder infections, pressure sores, respiratory problems, autonomic dysreflexia, spastic muscles, poor temperature regulation, and overall pain and discomfort from non-movement. In this book, Will only has partial moment in his right arm and neck. He feels some sensation in his lower body and his body can no longer regulate body temperature. At the moment, there is no cure for grievous spinal cord injuries, so quadriplegia remains a permanent condition. All caregivers can do is offer temporary relief for the side effects from the condition. Some people handle the permanent state of non-movement better than others. While quadriplegia is not necessarily a death sentence, for a formerly active and independent person, it can be worse than death.
This story definitely has shades of Pygmalion weaved throughout the narrative. Lou from a working class family and Will is from the moneyed upper class. The dynamic between the eternally optimistic Lou and the deeply cynical Will is the most intriguing part of the narrative. I was a little concerned that it would be another instant, love-on-first sight romances; thankfully, it is not. While the story contains elements of romance, it is more about Lou trying to convince Will that life is worth living, regardless of physical ability. Essentially, it is story about loving life. However, due to his condition, Will is determined to end his life on his own terms. Moyes composed a complex and, surprisingly, intricate plot that weaves together numerous characters and their efforts to keep Will alive.
Euthanasia is a delicate subject, but Moyes handles it quite well. Lou is not trying to convince will to live; instead, she is trying to give him a reason to enjoy life again. Very few novels approach the topic in such a moving manner. The story is mostly told from Lou’s perspective with a few chapters from other characters’ point-of-view. Lou is a small town girl who is rather happy to stay where she is forever. She has a great voice as a character. Due to her new job, she carries a lot on her shoulders, but she’s charming and funny, especially when she nervously babbles.
Will is a much more complicated character, which is understandable as he is confronting major problems: confined to a wheelchair, living with pain, missing his old life, and not knowing when his condition will deteriorate. While he initially dislikes Lou because of her lack of direction and determination to make him change his mind, they eventually fall for each other. Will implores Louisa to live life boldly and to live it well. Determined to make Will love life again, Louisa takes him on outings and an exotic vacation. While he is happier with her than he ever has been before, he cannot bear to live life in a wheelchair. He chooses to kill himself at Dignitas, the euthanasia firm in Switzerland, and leaves Louisa a large amount of money so that she can live her life to the fullest.
Critics of the book and movie contend that Me Before You continues the trend of depicting disabled persons as being perpetual victims: whose lives are sad and empty, who are unable to have a fulfilling existence, cannot contribute to society, or fall in love and start a family. I contend that this misses the whole point of the novel; which is that Will’s family wants him to live. His mother specifically hires Louisa to show him that life is still worth living. It is Will, not his family, who decided that he is worthless and can no longer contribute to society. Will decided to end his life, no one in his family encouraged him in this belief. The whole narrative deals with everyone in his life trying to convince him to stay alive He is the one who decided that his life no longer had any meaning. Furthermore, Louisa loved Will and tried her best to show him that happiness was possible after a catastrophic injury. And Will was not a pitiful character; he was portrayed as a wickedly intelligent, quick witted, and charismatic man. He just happened to be in a wheelchair. Also, he could have lived a life full of romantic love and, theoretically, have started a family with Louisa. He chose to forgo all that because he could not embrace the challenges of his new position in life. I heartily disagree with the critics. Before forming an opinion on the portrayal of Will, I suggest reading the book. I would also like to point out that JoJo recently released a sequel, After You, that specifically shows that no one was better off once Will ended his life.
Me Before You, Viking, 2012, ISBN: 9780670026603