Twenty-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.
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.