15 January

Book Review: “Me Before You.” When Love Hurts, When Hearts Break

by Jon Katz
When Love Hurts
When Love Hurts

I think many of us have wondered how we would handle being paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move from the neck down. What would it be like to love a person so grievously impaired? What would it be like to fall in love and be in that chair?  What kind of love would it be? “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes (fiction, Viking books)  is a great heartbreaker of a book. A love story, with lots of original twists and turns. Bring tissues. Read it early, as you may end up staying late to finish it, as I did.

Louisa Clark is the poster child for ordinary. An ordinary young girl in an ordinary English town  dating a dull and ordinary boyfriend. She has few expectations for life, and life has even fewer for her. As this story begins, Louisa’s life is suddenly upended when she loses her ordinary job in a cafe. As a key breadwinner for her anxious family – her father expects to be laid off any second  – Louisa reluctantly accepts a job caretaking Will Traynor, who is the opposite of ordinary. He is a former Master Of The Universe until a motorcycle accident left him an embittered quadriplegic, trapped in his parent’s mansion, dependent on others for everything. In a way, this is an old and familiar British literary obsession, (they are class obsessed)  the flower girl falling for the Lord. But Moyes takes the story in a completely new and different direction.

Until his accident, handsome young Traynor had it all, a wildly successful business career, life as an adventurer, travel and sex. And then he lost it all. Now, he is in constant pain, subject to a life of sores and infections, medications and precautions. Will is always on the edge of trouble – pneumonia, breathing, circulation problems. We read many stories about quadriplegics living full and meaning lives, but Will Traynor is not one of them. He wants his old life back and cannot accept his suffering and helplessness, barely deigning to go outside or even speak much to his worried parents. We first meet him soon after his lovely but air-brained ex-fiancee shows up clumsily with her new husband-to-be. She had dumped Will soon after the accident.

Lou is not a natural caretaker. She is outspoken, independent, funny, oddly dressed. Partly because she is so different, she brings Will out of his shell. Theirs is a sparky, confrontational but very honest relationship, growing by the page. As Lou and Will become closer, Louisa’s narcisstic boyfriend Patrick – he is obsessed with entering athletic competitions – becomes jealous. One of the very few flaws in this book is the existence of Patrick the boyfriend, who is so witless and unappealing (especially when compared to the handsome, brilliant, deeply troubled Will) that his only purpose for existing has to be to make it clear that Lou needs to fall in love with Will and get away from him. The first time we met Patrick, we know he’s a goner.

The nature of Louisa’s job and her life deepens when she discovered that Will plans to take himself to a controversial but legal clinic in Switzerland were doctors help terminally ill or severely disabled people kill themselves. Louisa was hired for six months, and she realizes to her horror that the family hopes she will be able to convince Will to stay alive. At that point, the book lifts off, rocking along somewhere between a love story and a social thriller. Lou and Will change each other. She brings him out of his bitter and closed shell, he opens her up to music, the idea of travel, books and new experience. The ordinary girl is not so ordinary any more, the bitter recluse begins to enjoy life.

This book is rich and multi-dimensional, there are strong portrayals of Louisa’s quarrelsome but loving and sacrificing family, Will’s loving but tense and controlling mother, the faithful nurse-helper Nathan. Will has withdrawn inside of himself since the accident. Louisa gets him to come out. He gets her to do the same. In so many ways, that is the nature of real love.

The book also vividly explores the painful and controversial issue of euthanasia, the legal assisted killing of human beings. Euthanasia has long been a heresy and taboo in America, but there are several countries in Europe that allow doctors to help people die in certain cases. In “Me Before You,” euthanasia is an explosive political issue, the very idea tearing Lou’s family apart. Moyes gives us a penetrating look into the different ways a family can feel about it, along with the question of just how much freedom do we really have to shape our life and our death? I found myself going back and forth, rooting for Will to be permitted to die, hoping he would decide to live. I will not, of course, give that decision away.

Louisa becomes obsessed with saving Will, getting him to accept love. She wants to save  him and comes to believe his love for her might give him the motive he needs. It’s a lot for a human being to take on, and it is, in many ways selfish. Will wants and need to live for himself, not for somebody else.  They travel to an exotic Mediterranean island, her first trip overseas, his first since the accident. They fall openly and deeply in love? Can she save him? Will he change his decision to quit a life he can’t accept for her?

Moyes also does a great job of putting us inside the head and life of a severely impaired person struggling to find a role for him or herself in a busy and distracted world. She challenges us not to look away from the people we fear becoming and to be mindful of their challenges in moving among us. It evokes this sometimes hidden world.

This book is not really an issue book. Mostly it is a great read from beginning to end. Will and Louisa are two great characters at the heart of a sob story, Shakespearean and hovering on the edge of tragedy.  Old Will would have turned this story into a play in a heartbeat. The book asks a lot of questions about love. What would you sacrifice for love? What do you do when making the person you love happy means shattering your own heart? What do you owe the person you love?  Tragedy hovers. Despite the issues the book raises, it is a barn burner of a love story. It will pull you in.

– If you want to purchase this book, please consider buying it at your local independent bookstore or via Battenkill Books, my local bookstore. You can call them at 518 677-2515, e-mail Connie Brooks at [email protected] or visit their website – www. battenkillbooks.com – they take PayPal and ship anywhere in the world. If money is a concern, the book will be out in paperback next year and it is available in digital form. I appreciated buying this one in paper because I knew I would want to read it now – it is getting great buzz – and pass it on. I do.

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