Monday, June 9, 2014
Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Title: Me Before You
Author: Jojo Moyes
Rating: 3.5 Stars
It has been said before, but it bears repeating: Me Before You is not a love story. In fact, despite the fact that this mantra has been stated and re-stated in nearly all of the reviews I've read of this book, I still got it into my head that it was a romance and a damn depressing one at that, considering the subject matter.
It's not a romance.
And it's not quite depressing, just...sad.
But only in parts.
Me Before You follows Lou, a bright young girl who has never left the comfort of her hometown. For Lou, working in the cafe, visiting her steady boyfriend, and staying with her parents is a perfectly respectable life. She isn't the ambitious daughter that her sister is, but she also isn't a single-mother the way her sister is, which seems to balance out the ordinariness of her life perfectly. When Lou's cafe shuts down, however, leaving her jobless at a time when her parents need the cash flow, she decides to take on a job as a carer, caring for Will Traynor. Will lived a vivacious life, scaling dangerous mountains, skiing down steep inclines, trekking through vast jungles...you name it, Will has been there and done it. Until, that is, a car accident leaves him paralyzed, stuck in a wheelchair and unable to do much on his own. For the past two years, Will's life has consisted of hospital visits, listening to the radio, reading novels, and watching the television. For a former adventurer, it isn't much of a life, particularly when there is practically zero chance of his condition improving.
When Lou enters Will's life, he's bitter and sarcastic, unwilling to succumb to her natural goodwill and charm. Naturally, he's furious with the cards life has dealt him and, coupled with the fact that his ex-girlfriend and former co-worker are engaged to be married soon, his temper is caustic. Lou, used to the genial atmosphere of the cafe where customers greet her, speak to her, and want to meet her, is taken aback by Will's temperament and is reluctant to continue her position. However, knowing her family needs the money, Lou persists, visiting Will with a tentative smile day after day, despite the fact that his mother terrifies her and him more so.
But, the relationship that develops between Will and Lou is so, so precious. Both of them come to a slow compromise, learning to get along, and eventually that develops into a tight friendship neither than step away from. Will, despite his cynical outlook on life, is surprised by Lou's small existence and takes it upon himself to expand her horizons, introducing her to foreign films, different novels, and world news. Lou, in turn, opens Will up from his despondent lifestyle, forcing him to see the small miracles in life--even his own.
What I appreciate about Me Before You, though, is the fact that Moyes never sugarcoats their relationship. Although Will and Lou are beginning to get along, Will constantly has his bad days; days when sickness keeps him in bed, days when the injustice of his situation hits him anew, days when he can't leave his house without feeling embarrassed--without feeling like a burden to those around him. As these feelings fester inside him, they bring along with them a fresh slew of problems as Will must consider whether or not he truly wants to live for a desperate few more years in pain or simply end his life while he can. It's a disturbing situation, but one Moyes deals with aplomb, which I greatly admire. From her no-nonsense writing style to her matter-of-fact prose, she never romanticizes the predicament Will is in, which only makes this story all the more heart-breaking.
Of course, there is a fair dose of romance in this novel as Lou falls in love with the man Will still is, but her Will and the Will before the accident are two entirely different men who Will himself cannot reconcile, which presents issues in their relationship. What's more, Will's disability prevents him from pursuing a relationship with Lou in the way he truly wants to and the weight of that sacrifice weighs upon him, nearly always. In the midst of these inner turmoils, though, Moyes--quite unnecessarily--throws in a variety of other hurdles. Most notably, Lou's longtime boyfriend, Patrick.
Patrick's presence in Me Before You is a mere annoyance, simply because his character lacks development. Patrick and Lou are an easy, convenient couple--one whose spark has long since died. Patrick is now focused on marathon training while Lou becomes increasingly involved in her new job as Will's carer, which only further wedges the gap between them. For me, their relationship never felt like a true obstacle in Lou's path and though it further represented the comfortable bubble she lived in, it lacked true purpose throughout the story. Me Before You is solely Will and Lou's story, thus the two-dimensional and flat secondary characters merely acted as roadblocks in the pacing of this story. Even with side characters such as Will's parents, his nurse, or Lou's family members, Moyes attempted to develop them by featuring one sole chapter interspersed in the narrative from their perspective instead of Lou's. While these chapters certainly shed more light on these characters, it felt cumbersome in such an all-consuming tale such as this one. I'd have loved to see these secondary character further developed--perhaps through more than one chapter from their perspective--but this taste of depth which Moyes provided wound up being far more detrimental to the storyline.
Another point of contention for me in Moyes acclaimed novel is the viewpoint shared of a life well-spent. At some point in Me Before You, the message of this novel became lost amidst the contentious tension between Will and Lou and their fate. It's an emotional ride, which I can appreciate, but I do not think I am alone in claiming that reader's will likely close this novel feeling a range of feeling instead of reflecting on the themes Moyes has--too subtly--weaved through this tale. Me Before You is all about living your life; really living your life. It's about encouraging people to go out there, leave their comfort zones, and experience the vastness of the planet we live on. However, while these are incredible messages to get across, I dislike the fact that Will is rich and privileged, enabling him to live the type of vibrant lifestyle he considers worthy. It's a complaint I've seen emerge from novels such as Gayle Forman's Just One Day duology, but where that series differs for me is in the fact that Allyson, the protagonist, finds ways to make her life meaningful by simply making friends, meeting people, and attending new classes. Forman, though writing of rich characters who have the money to travel the world, never fails to mention that life just can be just as profound and worthy doing small, meaningful activities opposed to the grand gestures of cinema.
Now, that's not to say that Moyes misses this message entirely--for she doesn't--but I felt as if it became buried under Will's constant advice for Lou to travel to the places he had been and leave her hometown. Instead, what I wanted was the acknowledgement that though Will's life felt fulfilling because of his adventures, the lives of people such as Lou's parents could also be considered more than fulfilling because of the love and family and support present in their lives. John Green, in The Fault in Our Stars, writes of how each and every one of us want to achieve greatness and make our mark on the world, but often the most profound manner in which we achieve that is by making a mark on the people around us. Moyes has written a novel that follows these messages perfectly, but the fact that I never felt it--that such important themes were never palpable on the page the way the feelings and lives of these characters were--is slightly disappointing.
Nevertheless, Me Before You is widely loved by many, many readers and, trust me, they're not wrong. Although I have my fair share of qualms with this novel, it still remains an excellent read--emotional, thought-provoking, and educational. It isn't your typical contemporary read, but perhaps that's what makes it so special.