A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Me Before You came to me with a double recommendation: I heard the rumour (which turned out to be false) that Tom Hiddleston would play the lead in a film adaptation, and right after that my good friend Claudia warmly recommended this book. I took this coincidence as a sign that I should read the book asap, and Claudia was certainly right to recommend it. I laughed; I swooned; I cried. (As an aside, I do wish the Hiddleston rumour hadn’t been just a rumour, because he’d be perfect for the role of Will Traynor.)
Louisa ‘Lou’ Clark is a young woman with a small life. There’s no other way to describe it. She’s more intelligent than she seems, or knows, but she’s quite devoid of ambition or long-term plans. She seems to have settled for working in a small tea shop, living in a small room in her parents’ house in a small town, and having a fitness-mad boyfriend she doesn’t really love or have anything in common with.
Then Lou loses her job, and ends up as a care assistant for a quadriplegic man. Will Traynor is a wealthy 35-year-old who used to have a career in the City and a life full of adventures, until a road accident took it all away from him. Will is understandably cranky, depressed and difficult, and Lou doesn’t find her new job easy at first; but they soon develop an unexpected bond.
The promise of a romance between a disabled person and his care assistant made me a bit wary at first, as the sexual harassment that many carers suffer is a subject that is rarely talked about. Luckily Moyes handles the romantic tension with great sensitivity. I find myself wanting to use the word ‘sweet’ for their relationship, but that doesn’t cover all of it. As a reader, I fell in love with both of them. They complement each other perfectly, and I wished I could have met these two people in real life: they felt so real to me.
And yet… And yet…
Dear reader, I must warn you that in spite of these warm words of praise, the book doesn’t end well. In fact, I found the ending devastatingly sad (and, to me, disappointing). This is definitely not a book to read when you’re feeling vulnerable.
The rest of this review contains big spoilers, so stop reading now unless you want to know how the book ends.
SPOILERS, I SAID.
IF YOU’RE STILL READING AFTER THIS LAST SPOILER WARNING, DON’T BLAME ME.
I may have been one of the few readers who approached this book without knowing that Will wished for euthanasia – and that he’d get his wish in the end. I don’t know how I managed to be so blind. I must have been fooled by the description on the back: ‘What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world with a riot of colour.’ That doesn’t exactly scream ‘Euthanasia clinic in chapter 26!’, does it?
I do think it takes a great deal of bravery to write about a subject matter like this; especially if you consider the book’s commercial genre. Whichever ending Moyes chose, it would have been a choice that was bound to upset many of her readers. Had Lou succeeded in her attempts to make Will want to live, the book would no doubt have been read – and probably for good reason – as anti-euthanasia propaganda. As it is, it could of course be read as ‘right to die’ propaganda. This is such a charged topic that the book becomes political even if the author’s intention is only to tell a good and moving story. I’m sure Moyes was aware of these difficulties, and I can’t deny I found the last chapters a bit heavy-handed and clumsy.
For the most part, Moyes treats the subject sensitively enough; she makes it clear this is not a decision to be taken lightly. I was chatting about this with a fellow bookfox who pointed out something I was half-thinking myself: that Will Traynor is quite the ideal candidate for euthanasia. Will is very severely disabled indeed, his condition seems to be deteriorating all the time, he has lost all the things he enjoyed in his previous life, he’s rich, he has family who care about him and want him to live, he has all the care and help he needs, he seems to have all the possibilities a man in his circumstances could have – even romance, in the end. He is not pressured or made to feel unwanted in any way. Moyes couldn’t have made it clearer that the decision was his and his alone.
I know I can’t blame Moyes for not writing the book I wanted to read, instead of the book she wrote, but I must admit the ending came as a big disappointment to me, quite apart from being terribly sad and a bit clumsily executed. When I first started reading this book, I hadn’t read any reviews and I had no idea what to expect. Indeed, from the cover and the description I assumed it to be a fairly conventional romance with a very unconventional hero, and I was DELIGHTED. (I should probably have looked more closely and I’d have noticed the woman on the cover is letting a bird go. I feel like sobbing right now. . .) Will was so severely disabled and his outlook on life so bleak that it was beautiful to witness the moments when he was starting to smile and laugh again – and fall in love. As I read on, I kept hoping – against hope – for him to attain that degree of happiness that would enable him to live a bit longer, one day at a time, and enjoy the company of Lou who so unreservedly adored him.
I’ve been thinking whether it would have been possible to write this particular ending in a way that would have satisfied me as a reader. The truth is, I don’t know. As it is, I found it almost cruel: the book dangles the possibility of love and happiness in front of the reader’s eyes, and then immediately snatches it away. The ending of the novel is obviously structured in a way that is meant to make Will’s choice come across as justified – to make us see that Lou eventually understands and accepts his decision – but in the act of reading, this novel made me feel the exact opposite. I just hoped, and hoped, and hoped. And then felt empty. Yes, my own expectations were largely to blame: had I known what to expect from the start, I wouldn’t have already written this book-I-wanted-to-read in my own head, and then clung to it so stubbornly. I suppose I was angry with the book, too, for breaking my heart at a vulnerable time; I realised today that the scrap of paper I’d used as a bookmark had been torn from a crematorium bill.
It would have been such a delight to read – just this once – about a couple who overcome such huge obstacles to find love and joy in an unusual but genuine way. About a severely disabled person who gets to be the hero of romance like any other able-bodied man. (Oh, and believe me, Will Traynor made a better romantic hero than any able-bodied one I’ve encountered in a book in a long time.) The ending made me think, quite crossly and cynically I admit, that I should have known what to expect. Instead of getting to be the romantic hero who gets a happy or at least a half-way hopeful ending, a quadriplegic leading man of course ends up being nothing but fodder for the readers’ catharsis. He is there to Teach A Lesson, as usual.
Such a judgment doesn’t do justice to a book that is, on the whole, sensitive, engaging, beautifully romantic without being sentimental, and has such a lovely pair of main characters. I don’t regret reading this book because it allowed me to meet Lou and Will.
But I’ll continue to wait for that mainstream book that gives a severely disabled person the romantic and happy ending s/he deserves. No catharsis: just hope.
Michael Joseph, paperback, 528 pp. ISBN: 0718157834