Jojo Moyes is a former newspaper journalist turned novelist. Her books tend to fall into the chick-lit category — she has won the Romantic Novelists' Association Romantic Novel of the Year Award twice for Foreign Fruit (2004) and The Last Letter From Your Lover (2011). But Me Before You, her ninth novel, isn't so easy to pigeonhole. I was looking for a light read to take away on holiday with me, and convinced by Simon's recent review, I packed it in my suitcase.
Before I explain about the story, I must say that the pastel pink cover is truly terrible. It looks so girlie and twee, and if I saw it in a bookshop I would pass over it without a second thought. (I was reading a proof edition adorned in a plain, sunset-yellow jacket so I didn't feel so self-conscious reading it.) Why do marketing departments insist on packaging "women's fiction" in this clichéd, dare I say it, patronising way? Does it really shift copies?
Me Before You deserves better treatment, because this isn't your average run-of-the-mill romance. Yes, I can see that it is probably aimed at 20-something women; yes, it's not "literary"; and yes, it occasionally feels over-written and predictable. But the story deals with big issues — the class divide, quadriplegia, rape and the right to die, among others — and is handled with acute sensitivity and a good dollop of humour to lighten the load.
Waitress turned carer/companion
Louisa Clark is 26 and still living at home with her invalid grandfather, her parents, her younger sister and her sister's young son. She has a dead end job working in a local cafe, but it's hugely important to her, because she's the breadwinner of the family. When she loses that job through no fault of her own — the cafe is closed down — she must hurriedly find something else to keep the family afloat. And that is how she ends up becoming a carer/companion to a local man, eight years her senior, who was paralysed from the neck down in a road accident several years earlier.
The job throws Lou in at the deep end. She has no experience as a professional carer, but she's been employed because she has a bright personality and it is hoped her presence will lift Will Traynor out of the doldrums. What Lou doesn't know is that she has six months to convince Will that life is worth living — he has already made an appointment with Dignitas to end his life through assisted suicide.
The narrative, told from Lou's point of view, shows how her relationship with Will develops and changes over time. (There are also solo chapters from Will's magistrate mother, Will's adulterous father, Will's New Zealand male nurse and Lou's intelligent sister, which provide a three-dimensional view of the relationship.)
At first, the pair intensely dislike each other. Will was once the type of man who relished adventure sports such as mountain climbing, scuba diving and motorbiking. But now, stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he is bitter, angry and frustrated. He takes this out on Lou by snapping at her or making patronising comments. (In one scene, he pretends to drool and have a fit, just to scare her off.) But as time goes by and they spend more time in each other's company a true friendship — and love — ensues.
Two people who change each other
The essence of the story is that these two people, from completely different backgrounds and mindsets, must find common ground to get along. Lou, who has settled for a quiet life living in the town of her birth, learns it's okay to want to spread your wings and live a different kind of life. And Will, once a richly paid City worker with a beautiful girlfriend to match, discovers that small moments of joy can be found in unexpected places.
Moyes somehow manages to balance deep poignancy with black comedy — there's one episode at a racecourse which is outright hilarious — so the narrative never feels heavy-handed or overly sentimental. And her depiction of life as a quadriplegic, including the detailed medical care required, is handled with compassion and dignity. She makes Will a flesh-and-blood real, three-dimensional character, when it would have been so easy to resort to cliché and stereotyping.
Despite the sadness at the heart of this novel, Me Before You is actually a life-affirming read about making the most of our lives and not taking anything for granted. The ending is hugely emotional — and not quite what I had expected — so if you decide to take the plunge and give this book a whirl, here's one piece of advice to take on board: read the last 40 or so pages in the privacy of your home, unless you particularly like sobbing into your Kleenex in public.