Vulpes Libris

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.

Jojo Moyes: Me Before You

mebeforeyouMe 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.




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.

And yet.

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

5 comments on “Jojo Moyes: Me Before You

  1. Hilary
    September 18, 2014

    Being spoiler-immune, I’m grateful for the warnings that told me it was safe to go ahead 😉 Thank you so much, Leena, for unpacking this book, about which I’d heard so much that made me feel wary (including the rumour….) Strangely, now replete with spoilers, I think I might cope with reading it now, just to find out what is happening here. I think I might end up agreeing with you in all respects about just how ‘brave’ this book is.

  2. Jackie
    September 18, 2014

    The first part of this review made me think I’d enjoy this book for the unconventional pairing, but now that you’ve explained the end, I don’t think I could handle it. I understand why an author might not want to do a happily-ever-after and how it’s a tribute to their talent that it would have such an effect on the reader, but I think someone would have to feel strong to take this book on.
    Thanks for telling us about your mixed feelings, and your strong reactions(and the irony of the bookmark). You did a great job explaining a complex book and one with such a depressing story and likable characters.

  3. Annecdotist
    September 19, 2014

    So interesting, Leena, as I enjoyed this novel for the very reasons you didn’t! It’s fascinating how readers’ tastes can differ so much.
    JoJo Moyes gave the keynote address at the York writing Festival two years ago. She came across as a wonderfully warm person, but I’d shied away from her work in the past because it seemed too sugary for my liking. As she spoke about friends and acquaintances looking at her askance when she told them she was writing a novel about assisted dying, I was thinking Yay, that’s the book for me! It’s a while since I read it so can’t remember all the details, but I did appreciate the ending: it seemed to me that Lou grew up quite a bit in learning that other people might not want the outcomes she wants for them and that Will made an informed decision about his future (or lack of it) based on a realistic appraisal of what he could and couldn’t have in his life.
    You make a valid point about the portrayal of characters with a disability: of course they should be romantic heroes and heroines with a happy ending when it fits. But don’t we sometimes enjoy a romance which is about lovers who can’t stay together for whatever reason? I thought that was handled well in this novel.
    It’s quite poignant that you were reading this with a scrap of paper from the crematorium as a bookmark. Your reaction reminded me of mine to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto: because of where I was in my life I was devastated by the ending, in floods of tears, yet that remains one of my favourite novels!
    Assisted dying is an extremely controversial subject arouses strong feelings: my own blog post on the subject, connected to my reading of the novel God’s Dog, evoked some interesting responses:
    Sorry I’ve gone on so much, you obviously hit the spot this morning. Thanks for posting on this subject and reminding me of this novel I’d forgotten.

  4. Krista Giannak
    April 12, 2015

    There were definitely parts of this book that I liked. I liked reading about Lou, how she enjoyed what may seem to be a small life with her fun and quirky family. For me, it shows that there are a variety of ways for people to be happy, and sometimes, it’s just about putting a smile on someone’s face.

    The author definitely showed some sensitivity and disability awareness, letting the average reader in on many disability issues. However, Will, throughout the book, remains an outsider to the disability community. Where are the characters with disabilities who do enjoy their lives? Neither Will nor Lou has friends with disabilities to provide a hopeful perspective for Will to consider, even if he ultimately rejects it. We only read second-hand stories that lack detail and emotion.

    Even for those in favor of assisted suicide, isn’t it supposed to be a fully informed decision? Aren’t people supposed to explore all of their alternatives before ultimately giving up? How can Will possibly know what’s out there, without even experiencing first-hand what the disability community has to offer? He doesn’t even have the tolerance to attempt a close friendship with someone who has any sort of disability. I was looking forward to reading about his adventures at the ranch for people with disabilities, but the author preempted that with the drama of Will contracting pneumonia.

    Overall, I believe that the book does a disservice to people with disabilities. It’s one thing to tell an untold and unpopular story about assisted suicide. It is quite another not to provide an alternate perspective while doing so, not to show, in a narration just as rich, The happier lives and experiences of other people with severe disabilities.

    Finally, I read the sparse acknowledgments. How many people with disabilities did the author consult? Did she have any beta readers with severe disabilities giving feedback? Where are the mentions of these unsung, everyday examples of hope? This book was quite brave, and I hope that her next novel will be a brave story about a hero with a disability.

  5. Muthu mohanambal
    September 26, 2015

    Dear blogger where is analysis of story of the book, which was i mostly anticipated. you should give detailed picture of the story in a sophisticated manner then you should tell clearly to the readers bout buying this book or don’t. So that this article has the point to tell.
    thanks :))
    by Muthu Mohanambal

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2014 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: general, Fiction: romance, Fiction: women's.



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