Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

me before you    Moyes, Jojo. Me Before You. New York: Viking, 2012.

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Wow! My colleague Lisa recommended this one to me, which I have to admit I’d been avoiding because, honestly, it sounded a bit odd, like a typical 21st-century “let’s-shock-and-be-clever” novel. I mean, a love story between a woman and her quadriplegic charge? I didn’t think I wanted to go there.

But I’m glad I did because it was so much more than that. Yes, it was a classic love story, one in which two people change each others’ lives and have no regrets, but one that’s doomed in so many ways. It’s interesting to see how Moyes breaks down the class barriers here, using something much more powerful than class differences (a traditional feature of doomed romances) to help the characters get past (or not) their own biases and prejudices. And, yes, as Louisa (our “heroine”) reminds us, she is Eliza Doolittle to Will’s (our “hero”) Professor Higgins, or, as he corrects her (being wont to do so often), Pygmalion. These two are on much more equal footing, though, than the characters from that play. Unlike Eliza Doolittle, Louisa has her own prejudices and biases to overcome, ones that could make her feel she is in a superior position to Will, although she manages to overcome them quite quickly.

When we first meet them, Louisa and Will are both broken people, struggling with their demons. Will’s are more obvious, Louisa’s a bit more subtle until we get to know more about her. Before his accident, Will was a successful businessman, enjoying an “upper crust” lifestyle that allowed him to pursue risk-taking adventures like skiing and scuba diving, and he was very physical in every way. Now, he only has limited movement in one hand. Louisa has lost her job at a local bakery that’s closed down and has become fearful of life, never venturing outside the town where she was raised because of something that happened to her, six years ago, when she was twenty. She accepts the job caring for Will, which she really doesn’t want, because her father is about to lose his job, and their family needs the money. Will is angry beyond measure, refusing to accept his fate, and Louisa is fearful in the same way, clinging to her comfort zone. Together, against all odds, they both heal.

The love story is a painful one; the book isn’t always easy to read; and it tackles the very controversial topic of a person’s right to die, providing no easy answers to the question, “Does anyone ever have the right to take his or her own life?” I’ve thought about that question in very abstract ways, but Moyes makes it personal by creating characters who work their way into the reader’s heart, ironically springing to life from the same pages that focus a good deal on death and dying. I found only one fault in Moyes’s superb characterization and that was a rather uneven relationship between Louisa and her sister Katrina. I know relationships between sisters can be inconsistent, emotional, and difficult to understand, but some of the things these two did seemed overly inconsistent for the relationship Louisa painted. Other than that, though, the writing was flawless, seamless, and I liked the way Moyes told most of the story from Louisa’s first-person point of view but gave us three brief chapters told, respectively, from the points of view of Will’s mother, Will’s father, and Katrina (that’s a writing gimmick I don’t usually like, but it worked here). Moyes also managed to slip in some very funny scenes to provide a little relief for the poor reader (mind you, she’s just punched the reader in the gut, but at least she feels a bit bad about doing so). In fact, the book starts off on a light note, easing the reader into its darkness.

Me Before You isn’t for everyone. Some might be very upset with the way it ends. Others may find the whole topic too odd. But me? I loved it for being a classic, tragic but very moving, love story, one that ended hopefully and poignantly (the way many a good tragedy often does), and I liked the fact that it made me think and wonder. Not something I’d grab for a day at the beach (and I think I need a little Marian Keyes or something for dessert now) but definitely a book I loved reading from beginning to end, despite a few episodes of watery eyes (if not actual tears) along the way.