Me Before You

Me Before YouTwenty-six-year-old Louisa Clark has been perfectly content living with her working-class parents and working at a café in her small English town. It’s a small life, an uncomplicated and safe life, but Lou considers it a pretty nice life. So she’s thrown for a loop when the café closes suddenly and she’s left to look for a job in a bad economy with no easily marketable skills. Eventually, she gets hired as a paid companion and helper to Will Traynor, a wealthy young man who was hit by a car two years earlier and left a quadriplegic. After a rocky start, the two get used to each other and become close, with surprising results.

My feelings about this novel by Jojo Moyes are complicated. So I want to say right from the start that I enjoyed reading it. It was engaging and entertaining, and I whipped through it in three sittings, stopping only because I had to. And I got choked up at the end. It’s that kind of book. It’s not perfect, but I liked it.

The style took me by surprise, especially given the subject matter. Almost the entire story is told by Lou herself, and she adopts a chatty and informal, slightly comic tone, reminiscent of Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella, or Nick Hornby. Here, for example, is her description of the cafe where she works:

I liked the fuggy bacon-scented warmth of the café, the little bursts of cool air as the door opened and closed, the low murmur of conversation, and, when quiet, Frank’s radio singing tinnily to itself in the corner. It wasn’t a fashionable place—its walls were covered in scenes from the castle up on the hill, the tables still sported Formica tops, and the menu hadn’t altered since I started, apart from the addition of chocolate brownies to the iced-bun tray.

But most of all I liked the customers. I liked Kev and Angelo, the plumbers, who came in most mornings and teased Frank about where his meat might have come from. I liked the Dandelion Lady, nicknamed for her shock of white hair, who ate one egg and chips from Monday to Thursday and sat reading the complimentary newspapers and drinking her way through two cups of tea. I always made an effort to chat with her. I suspected it might be the only conversation the old woman got all day.

I enjoy this kind of writing once in a while, and I especially like it for a topical book like this. Too often, contemporary popular fiction about “issues” just seems bland in its prose. This prose, while not elegant and lovely, has a voice that sounds like it belongs to an actual person. And the handful of chapters narrated by other people sound like they belong to someone else, as they should.

The story also worked well, with a few caveats, one of the biggest being that it’s so predictable. The trajectory of Lou and Will’s relationship is obvious from the start, and the book employs a lot of familiar tropes. You’ve got a whole Pygmalion thing happening, for example, and then there’s the idea of the irreverent working-class girl bringing joy to the unhappy rich guy. But sometimes familiar tropes act like comfort food, and I mostly didn’t mind them here. Moyes employs them in a fresh enough way that I didn’t feel like I’d read this story a thousand times.

Moyes uses her chatty style and familiar tropes to raise big questions, life or death questions. What makes a life worth living? After working with Will for a while, Lou learns that Will wants to end his life. He doesn’t see the point in going on if he can’t have the big life he used to have. Lou thought she was happy in her small life, but Will urges her to stretch beyond her boundaries. We eventually learn that Lou’s contentment is as much about fear as it is about finding joy in small things.

And here’s where my thoughts about this book are really complicated. Early on in the book, Lou really did seem happy. But apparently she wasn’t. She couldn’t have been—so assumes Will anyway. She’s better than the life she has, and she’s wrong not to try to do something more. Except how does Will know she’s not happy? Because he wouldn’t be? It turns out he was right, but there’s little evidence of these feelings. My own feelings about this assumption on Will’s part are no doubt colored by my irritation with the common message in our culture that we must seize our dreams—the “if you can dream it, you can do it” nonsense. It’s easy enough for Will to preach at Lou about not traveling overseas or furthering her education. He has all the money and privileges in the world. And now that his body holds him back, he doesn’t see the point in going on. Is there no value in finding contentment in living within our limitations? Yes, there are times to strive, to press against our boundaries. But there are also times to accept our situation and find a way to live within it. I suppose a central question this book poses is, when should we strive and when should we settle? The problem is that the book seems not merely to pose the question but to provide an answer. And I don’t much like the answer.

UK Cover

UK Cover

On a different note, this book is an interesting example of how books by women are and can be marketed. One reason the book’s style took me by surprise was that it was recommended to me by a male colleague. The US cover (at the top of this post) is gender-neutral, and Jojo could be the name of a man or a woman.  Yet the writing seemed like something I’d find in a novel classed as chick-lit. (I’m not crazy about that term, but it’s helpful for making this point.) I expected something more staid.

The UK cover, on the other hand, screams that it’s a book for women—and a light book at that. I’d probably pass that cover right by unless I were in that rare mood when I want to read a frothy romance or feather-light coming-of-age story. Both covers fit the book reasonably well—one suits the tone and the other suits the topic. But one cover says the book is for one segment of the reading public. The other leaves it open. It made me think of Maureen Johnson’s recent Coverflip experiment, in which she invited readers to reimagine popular book covers as if the authors were a different gender. In this case, the right cover might be somewhere in between the two, but if I had to choose, I’d pick the US cover. It seems altogether better not to shut out a huge chunk of the reading public with your cover choice.

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20 Responses to Me Before You

  1. Jeanne says:

    So the tropes act like comfort food but the point is to think about whether your comfortable life is your wish, or just fear? And the cover can heighten or conceal that message? That sounds really interesting!

  2. Karen K says:

    That Coverflip link was extremely eye-opening, as were some of the links. The article by Deborah Copaken Kogan was particularly chilling  I had no idea authors have no say in the covers or even the TITLES of their books!!! What a crock of crap.

  3. When I first read this book (on the strong urgings of trusted friends), I was really taken with it, crying at the end, and thinking about it long after I had finished it, even though these aren’t the kinds of books I normally gravitate towards. I gave it a 4-star rating on GoodReads, simply because I had read it compulsively and because I had responded so fiercely to it.

    But the more I thought about the book, the more it started to really annoy me. Yes, there were elements about it that were predictable, but I felt like there were more sinister ones that play into the standard gender tropes and stereotypes that are less obvious that I found really problematic. You already pointed out the whole “Pygmalion” issue, and that really did bug me, in part because I feel like the reverse story—a crippled rich woman being cared for by a poor man—would probably never be written (or even if Lou and Will were social equals, I’m less certain that story would be told). I felt like even though Will was in the wheelchair, there wasn’t ever truly an equality of power between him and Lou. He knew best and he had the power to make Lou’s better, in ways she never could have imagined were it not for him.

    For a long time, I wondered about the title of the book as, for whatever reason, I felt I couldn’t really figure it out what it was getting at. I eventually saw it was supposed to refer to the people Lou & Will were before they met each other and were changed through that relationship, but in the end, all I could think was that it was fitting in another way: in the end, I felt like Will was always being himself first, always before Lou. I’m sure he cared for her, but I also think there was some element of his affection that was all too similar to the amusement one takes in a small child or pet, not really the respect and admiration we afford our equals.

    So, all to say that this was a book that I found satisfying in the moment, but increasingly problematic and distasteful the longer I thought about it afterwards.

    • After I cleaned up my tears, I felt this way, too. I also felt a little like Moyes set out to write a novel that would be the “OMG you will cry SO MUCH…you need to read it” book.

      • Teresa says:

        It does seem like these tear-jerky books get so many points for being moving that they don’t get examined. I give her credit for making me tear up, but that doesn’t mean the book is great.

    • Teresa says:

      When I finished it, I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads and downgraded it to 3 the next day, largely because the class and gender issues rose to the surface in my head. I wonder if I’ll downgrade it further as I think about it more. Right now, I think the engagement value is good enough for 3 stars, but that’s today.

      And yes, I totally agree about the power dynamics. I think this is where the ending, which some might consider brave, is a big problem. If Will had been able to learn from Lou and even change his mind, then the relationship would seem balanced. She learns to be bold; he learns to find a way to live within his limitations. But as it is, I have to question Will’s judgment in letting Lou get so attached. I think you’re onto something in that she’s a project for him, not someone he’s building a relationship with. He’s a project for her too, but only at first. She sees him as an equal. The dynamics between them are so interesting; it would have been better if the novel had let some of this complexity and imbalance shine through, instead of seeming to endorse Will’s view, which I think it does in the end.

      I had been wondering about the title as well, but hadn’t given it lots of thought. I like your ideas about it!

  4. jenn aka the picky girl says:

    I feel so so much like Steph did. I immediately told my best friend to read it, but even the next morning (after staying up late reading it), I had serious hesitations. It was like the book couldn’t commit to being completely serious after the subject matter so had to inject the “you’ve just won the lottery!” deal that’s so annoying to me. Because let’s be honest, how often does that happen? I hate to be a downer, but life can suck sometimes, and often when it sucks, it doesn’t magically get better. You have to make it better, or, as you say, learn to be content with what you have.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, the ending for Lou’s story felt like such a cheat to me. She’s only able to live a properly big life because her fairy godfather makes it so. Well, what if he hadn’t done that? What, in fact, if her dad hadn’t gotten a job through her connection with Will? It would have been better if she’d figured out a way to live boldly within her circumstances, because that cushion she ends up with makes her new-found bravery seem a lot less brave.

  5. Jenny says:

    Unless there is a lot more to this book than what you’re discussing, this also sounds like a really ableist message. Why on earth would your life not be worth living from a wheelchair (or without sight, or hearing, or with mental limitations, or whatever)? People with disabilities often look at people without disabilities and think about how much less creative and out of the box we are, because we don’t have to be, every second of our lives, just to navigate a non-disabled culture. Our privilege stands in the way of seeing the world in a particular really open way. It sounds like class really works into this book, too.

    • Teresa says:

      Moyes does make some efforts to show how much someone with a serious disability can do. Lou gets involved with a message board for caregivers and quadriplegics and gets a lot of insights into what a quadriplegics can do. The ableism mostly comes from Will himself, and his feelings are actually hotly debated among the people Lou meets online. So Moyes tries to counter Will’s feelings, but whether she does so successfully is debatable. I think she leaves some room for debate about Will’s feelings.

      The class issues, on the other hand, are not adequately acknowledged. A lot of Will’s attitude about his disability is, I think, linked to his class privilege and general lack of obstacles throughout life, but that connection is not explored as well as it could be.

  6. This book was a huge surprise to me. My book club chose it, and I was feeling rebellious and uninterested and I almost skipped the group meeting. However, I’m glad I jumped onboard because this book affected me far more than I anticipated. I found the character development and writing much better than whatever I thought I was getting.

    • Teresa says:

      This would be a great book club choice. Even with my mixed feelings about it, I know I’d enjoy an in-person discussion about it. It raises so many issues worth talking about.

  7. Christy says:

    What you say about the relationship between the main characters makes me think of so many romantic dramas / comedies where there is usually a conversation when either the man or the woman says to each other, “you’re not really happy with your life”. And often they have so little basis on which to say that, but they are proven right in the end.

    I had not quite articulated in my head what you wrote about the cover but I had a passing thought on it. I haven’t read the book but when I heard about it, I thought it sounded like chick-lit. But the cover didn’t match my sadly reinforced conception of what kind of cover that kind of story gets, and I noticed.

    Somewhat along these lines, but a little tangent-y, I know a guy who reads lots of classics but kind of wrinkled his nose at the thought of reading Jane Austen, because he assumed it was too girly for him. Exasperating.

    • Teresa says:

      That kind of plot really gets on my nerves. Too often, it seems like they’re saying “I wouldn’t be happy in your life, so how could you be?” I feel like that message creates discontentment in people who might otherwise be perfectly happy in their situation, even if it’s not the situation they dreamed of. It’s different if someone shows signs of being unhappy, but leading a simple life is not in itself a sign of unhappiness. The inability to be content in less-than-ideal circumstances strikes me as really sad.

      It is exasperating when good books get written off as too “girly.” You hardly ever see the reverse. That’s why I’m kind of glad this book got a weightier cover in in the U.S., just to open some male readers up to a different kind of book. I just hope that if it doesn’t work for them, they don’t assume it’s typical of most women’s writing.

  8. Deb says:

    I have not read this book, but in some ways your description of the plot reminds me of one of Elizabeth Berg’s books, Never Change, where a 50-ish spinster takes a job caring for the terminally-ill man who was her secret high school crush. No matter how well-written these books are, they tend to irritate me because of the gender issues they raise and the underlying message that women of the “wrong” class, age, degree of attractiveness, etc., can only partner men who are physically impaired in some way.

    As for the covers, I think the English cover still says “female writer” to me–perhaps it’s the curly-cue font. I do know that most romance novelists who have reached a required degree of success and sales usually ask for cover approval so they can get out if the “bodice-ripping by Fabio” covers.

    • Teresa says:

      I think Steph’s point that you don’t see this story told with the genders reversed is telling. In a way, I get that a giving a character a disability or illness is a way of making someone who’s always had privilege to see what it’s like to lose some of it, but it’s tricky to handle well. I didn’t think it was handled as well here as it could have been.

      The plainer cover seems more retro than feminine to me. It made me think of older covers for really serious authors.

  9. Melwyk says:

    You’ve given this one a lot more thought than I have. I don’t usually read this kind of book — I was sent it (with the pinky English cover) & only picked it up because I felt like a light read. The subject matter wasn’t exactly light, and I did cry at the end (not a habit either!) But then I didn’t think about it much after I’d finished it.

    Reading your post was really illuminating. A great inspection of the themes and reservations about this story. It’s true upon reflection, that Will is complicated; if he had not been disabled and dependent on Lou, I don’t get the feeling that he would have given her the time of day. Interesting to dig a little deeper, thanks.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t think about all of these issues, the class ones especially, until I started working on my post. Sometimes I think blogging makes me notice the problems in books more because I do end up thinking about them more, but I enjoy that thinking process so much that it’s worth it, even if I end up liking a few books less because of it. (And sometimes I continue to love a book despite the problems.)

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