The premise of Me Before You is simple: a 26-year-old unemployed waitress becomes a caregiver for a quadriplegic man from a wealthy family. Will Traynor used to be a high flyer: a well-travelled London-based executive with a beautiful girlfriend. By the end of the Prologue, a motorcycle accident shatters his world.
The opening chapters of Me Before You skirt perilously close to predictability: the antagonism between the main characters is so palpable (I kept thinking of the opening scenes of The African Queen) that a love interest must be around the corner. We have learned, after all, that a novel’s exposition presents us with a false equilibrium, a house of cards waiting to be blown away. And that fresh breeze, in this novel, consists mainly of the female protagonist.
Jojo Moyes presents us with an engaging and affable anti-heroine in Louisa (‘Lou’) Clark. Lou’s family relies on the money she brings in but is otherwise ready to regard her actions as “further evidence of [her] catastrophic inability to do anything of any worth.” She has self-deprecating humour (“my thinking face makes it look like I want to go to the loo”) and despite her experience as a waitress is unable to brew even a decent cup of tea. Patrick, her boyfriend, is on a fitness craze, obsessed with bulking up his own body — while taking her for granted.
Initially, Lou is at a loss as to what she is meant to be doing in the Traynor household. The ever-reliable Nathan, a nurse from New Zealand, looks after Will’s physical and medical needs. Lou’s attempts to provide Will with companionship flounder on his stony silence, evasive behaviour and borderline hostility. In an effort to earn her keep, she dusts rooms that are already clean under the watchful eye of Camilla Traynor, Will’s mother.
After a while Lou discovers that there is an undisclosed, more compelling reason for her presence, and the main plot line takes off from there, as Lou embarks upon a mission to enrich Will’s life.
I enjoyed the awkwardness of Lou’s character and the gentle and at times absurd humour that was never far away. Some characters remain one-dimensional – Patrick, I thought, and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Traynor. Most chapters are written from the point of view of Lou, in the first person, which adds to the directness of the story. As the novel progresses, the first-person POV occasionally shifts to other characters. While this enables the author to push the plot along, the random shifts felt like an interruption, breaking the flow of the narrative.
Me Before You raises ethical questions about disability, choice and self-determination without ever being didactic or preachy. It would appear from the reviews on GoodReads that several readers reject the novel on the basis of Will’s ultimate choice. The word ‘callous’ has been used. I do not share that view as I don’t believe the author presents Will’s choice as the only viable one. This is one story, not a template for decision-making, and Moyes provides that context by juxtaposing the idiosyncrasies of Will’s character (he can be stolid, self-centred and incredibly obstinate) and Lou’s role as a life-affirming redeemer who, in this instance, fails.
Lou starts out as an ordinary woman leading a very circumscribed life. Her lack of curiosity and her passive acceptance can be irritating, especially when she stumbles into exploitative situations. Yet in some ways her journey is more compelling than Will’s. She carries her own trauma, but her altruism unlocks reserves of creativity, resilience and determination and fuels a remarkable process of growth. The ending contributes to the book’s honesty and emotional richness, and dispels any fears that this story is predictable or cheesy.
If you are after a traditional romance, then this novel may not be for you. But if you are prepared to read about the halting development of an unlikely but compelling and ultimately memorable relationship, you will not be disappointed.