Me Before and After You
By Miriam R. Kramer
Carl Jung once stated “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” Jojo Moyes hit the NY Times bestseller list several years ago with her blockbuster novel Me Before You. This past fall, she released a sequel, After You, for those who wanted to follow Louisa Clark and Will Traynor, characters who experienced intense and life-changing interactions in her first book. She struck a chord with a widespread audience as she built their story, presenting the joy and potential for bitter heartbreak that arise when people begin to understand, love, and potentially change each other.
While the tide of Moyes’s plainspoken writing style pulled me along easily, I was not intrigued by her main characters. The kind and offbeat Louisa, 26, enters this novel as a younger sister, overshadowed by brainy, energetic Treena. Without academic qualifications for a more interesting job, she lives with her cheerful, bickering family comprising her mother, father, sister, nephew, and grandfather in a working-class semi-detached house. She drifts along in her life, unambitious and incurious about the world. Having worked at a local café for years, she has fallen into the rut of dating a self-absorbed man obsessed with his work as a physical trainer.
Louisa’s life changes rapidly when she suddenly loses her job. She considers an unexpected job opening when her employment counselor hears of a well-paying, six-month position as companion and general help for Will Traynor, a 35-year-old quadriplegic who lives in a grand house on the other side of town. While Will has a male caretaker to attend to his physical needs, his mother wants someone in his life to cheer him up and keep him company.
The game but sensitive Louisa initially finds her position so difficult that she feels like quitting every day. Will has been an independent and formerly ruthless financial whiz in London, a world traveler who has tried adventure sports like bungee jumping and rock climbing all over the globe. After being hit by a motorcycle, he retains only some use of his hands. Chafing bitterly at his confinement, he has become moody, withdrawn, and highly contrary towards both his parents and caretakers. Louisa doggedly works to reach him, joke with him, call him out on his rudeness and fulfill the request his parents have given her: to lighten his spirits and improve his quality of life.
Gradually she becomes sensitized to his changed position in the world. She sees the pitying glances from strangers, Will’s estrangement from fair-weather friends at his former workplace, and his vulnerability to illnesses that can hospitalize him at any time. His inevitable need for caretakers and family negates his former independence almost completely. Louisa’s empathy brings her much closer to him, as he begins to understand and care for her, despite himself. As they develop camaraderie, she accidentally overhears information about his plans. Her six-month job carries an ominous resonance, since he had given his parents an ultimatum: he will give them six months more of his almost non-existent life before he deliberately ends it at Dignitas, a clinic in Switzerland.
Louisa finds a previously unknown determination within herself, visiting chat rooms populated by quadriplegics and their caretakers all over the world, questioning how they have learned to live with their altered options. She operates with a terrier’s tenacity to change Will’s mind about his own existence, finding any opportunity to expose him to life once more. As his timeline draws nearer, Louisa designs a wonderful vacation to prove to him once and for all that he has the possibility to travel adventurously and live beautifully despite his physical limitations.
As the story shifts forward and inward, Me Before You becomes much more than a typical chick-lit novel. My original impressions of Will and Louisa changed. When they speak with complete honesty about the choices they have made in their lives, both transform. He pushes Louisa, sometimes brusquely, towards opening her soul by exposing her to a bigger world of art, music, and travel. After she shares with him a private, traumatic experience that made her turn inward, she can begin to enjoy experiences outside of her formerly circumscribed existence.
Will, in turn, looks forward to her company. His retreat from the outside world and newfound tendency towards introspection lead him to realize that he led a shallow, aggressive existence in business while enjoying upper-class glam girlfriends primarily there for his bank account, looks and alpha male personality. In valuing Louisa, he gets as much joy from helping her develop as she does from working to open his mind to the possibility for a disabled person to enjoy a different way of being. Their humorous back-and-forth slowly develops into a beautiful and genuine conversation.
This novel shows influences from stories such as Jane Eyre and Bridget Jones’ Diary, along with a superficial pop culture echo of Richard Gere “tutoring” Julia Roberts in the highly irritating fantasy film Pretty Woman. That being said, this book is nothing like that film. Moyes’s Me Before You creates the relationship between Louisa and Will as a profound way for each to find an unanticipated joy through their strong connection, while bringing up the provocative and painful idea of assisted suicide. I often took a break in reading to fully consider the characters’ opinions and compare them to my own views on the topics they discussed.
As Louisa and Will fall in love, Me Before You focuses on human yearning for redemption, a redemption achieved through those rare, gorgeous, moments of connection in which people instinctively understand and spontaneously show great spiritual generosity toward one another. Such love generates blind courage, courage enough to bear the subsequent prices for that love. Me Before You has the potential to change the reader. For that reason alone, it is worth your time.
Moyes’s follow-up, After You, may be worth perusing for its discussion of ways to deal with grief’s impact in fragmenting families, friends, and lovers. It does not carry the same weight as Me Before You, but it may satisfy those who want to know more about Louisa and Will.
In this sequel set eighteen months later, Louisa has slipped back into her old routine of working an unchallenging job while doing what she can to handle her emotional burdens. In addition to a chaotic whirl of family problems intruding constantly on her life, she is blindsided by the unexpected arrival on her doorstep of Will’s previously unknown and neglected teenage daughter, Lily, an unhappy girl for whom she feels an innate responsibility. While Louisa’s passivity and grief make it hard to retain focus, she finds a way to realize the internal resilience she once discovered through understanding Will’s views and clear vision. While helping Lily to connect with her newfound Traynor family, she opens herself up once more to adventure and possibility.
After You is larded with silly and unbelievable plot twists, but it too has a good heart. It is also a quick read. In the end, Will’s presence and attitudes have changed Louisa permanently, and she gets ready to jump into a tantalizing future. By now she has taken measurable steps to embody another Carl Jung philosophy that always defined Will’s attitudes towards his own life. “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”