Simply reading the jacket copy of Moyes's second novel might give readers the impression that Me Before You is a traditional "opposites attract" kind of romance novel, the kind of story that proves that love conquers all, even in the most extreme circumstances. Although on one level that may be true, Me Before You is, in fact, so much more. It's a story about personal redemption and self-worth, about finding courage, about knowing what to hold onto and what to let go. It's also a meditation on one of the most controversial and divisive issues of our times. And, lest you think that the novel is merely an inspirational fable or a "problem novel," rest assured that it's also a beautifully and smartly written literary work, full of lovely phrases, complicated characters, and compelling situations.
When we first meet Louisa Clark, known as "Lou," she seems to have settled into a predictable pattern. At age twenty-six she still lives at home with her parents and her relationship with her boyfriend seems to have settled into familiarity or could it be stagnation? She's never had much in the way of ambition her only real gesture toward originality is her unconventional, adventurous fashion sense. But Lou is about to be shaken out of her complacency when she loses her job at the local bakery.
It's 2009, the height of the recession, and Lou's family is relying on her to bring in an income, especially since her dad's job is far from secure. So against her better judgment, Lou applies to be a caregiver for a wealthy quadriplegic man. Much to her surprise, she is offered the job. Even more to her surprise, the middle-aged woman who interviews her is not the man's daughter or wife she's his mother. Will Traynor is just thirty-five but has been confined to a wheelchair for two years, ever since an accident left him with an inoperable spinal cord injury.
Will seems to despise Lou when they first meet, and she feels the same. He is incredibly rude and, more than that, he rejects her. Over time, however, Lou sees beneath Will's gruff demeanor and beyond his injury, and the two form an increasingly tender friendship. But it's a bittersweet one as well, as Lou soon discovers Will's true intentions to seek suicide rather than to endure decades in a wheelchair and takes it upon herself to set him on a different path during the short time they may have together.
Me Before You is simultaneously whimsical (the descriptions of Lou's wardrobe are particularly delightful) and romantic. It is also intensely serious, as it compels readers to consider powerful questions about freedom, choice, and the value of human life. Both Will's and Lou's choices can, and likely will be, debated and discussed by anyone who reads their story and the novel's surprisingly uplifting conclusion is bound to prompt more than a few tears.
Moyes's novel will appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult and Marian Keyes, as well as readers who appreciate a thoughtful engagement with real-world issues, nestled in a superbly told story.
This review was originally published in January 2013, and has been updated for the July 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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