I know. I am awkwardly late to the party with this one. Me Before You was published in 2012 and went on to sell millions of copies. Somehow, I never got round to reading when it was ‘all the rage’ but decided to pick it up last week. It seemed like a good time, what with a sequel on the way and a film adaptation – starring Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke – in the works.
This is the story of Lou and Will. Will is a quadriplegic who enjoyed the trappings of life as a City highflyer before being injured in a road accident. Lou is the somewhat directionless young woman who becomes his carer. Will is unable to resign himself to a life of dependence, frequent bouts of illness and constant discomfort. Lou, still deeply affected by a traumatic incident in her past, is also living a restricted existence. Sticking close to her family, staying in her home town and never straying far out of her comfort zone makes Lou feel safe and in control. However, it also makes her feel unfulfilled.
This is Lou and Will before they meet. The novel focuses on what happens afterwards: how will these two people change one another? How will their meeting affect their lives?
Me Before You is a superbly written, emotionally engaging story. I did feel, however, that it cleaved rather too closely to rigid class stereotypes. Of course it is the middle-class mother who appears chilly and remote whilst the working-class mother is obsessed with housework and never sits still. Of course the working-class parents are a little in awe of their younger daughter because she attends university and is thus so much cleverer than them or anyone else they’ve ever met before. And, naturally, it is middle-class Will who likes classical music, opera and foreign cinema whilst all of these things are quite alien and discomforting to working-class Lou. I found the My Fair Lady/Pygmalion aspect to Lou and Will’s relationship hugely irritating and highly patronising.
Moreover, Lou and Will are, to a great extent, instantly recognisable stereotypes themselves: the formerly ruthless businessman in massively reduced circumstances; the clever but ditsy girl who is obviously a bit wacky because she wears – wait for it – stripy tights.
But – and it is rather a large ‘but’ – Jojo Moyes pulls off quite a feat by making Lou and Will seem like real people anyway. I reckon that the majority of commercial successes – be they novels, films, or songs – do so well because they are somehow new and familiar at the same time. We recognise these people; we have seen their like before. But there is something else here, too: an added depth. Moyes’ characters are all able to transcend their stereotypes and appear fully fleshed out and human. I felt I had come to know them and and am glad that a follow-up is on its way: I really want to catch up with these people and discover how they’re getting on.
As well as the characterisation, this novel is lifted by its clear-sighted, unsentimental portrayal of disability and life-changing trauma. The difficulties Will faces are vividly documented, right down to the tiniest detail. One of fiction’s greatest gifts is that it offers us real insights into lives markedly different to our own. Moyes excels at providing unflinching depictions of the lives of Will, his family and his carers, pulling no punches as she does so.
What is probably quite clear by now is that Me Before You isn’t always the light read its pastel-hued (in the UK at least) cover promises. And, as I have outlined, it really did irritate me at times. However, when I read, I want to encounter characters who come to feel real to me, and I want to close the book feeling like I’ve gained a little something – be it greater insight, empathy, knowledge. This was certainly the case with Me Before You and I eagerly anticipate the sequel.