Note: I am not going to pretend that I know much at all about disability so I am pretty much totally unaware if the portrayal in the novel is accurate (I am not therefore saying that I believe it to be an inaccurate portrayal either). Furthermore, please be aware that this novel is a work of fiction and the true focus is on the story and the characters, although some interesting topics and thinking-points are raised. So my review will not be about the factual sides of Will’s disability as this is not where my focus lay. Above all, this is a story of love and how the characters are affected by each other and the situations they go through.
‘You are scored on my heart.’
This is not only a story of love, but a story of how you can influence someone’s life and change them forever.
‘Me before you is a page-turner that sucks the reader into caring about the fate of the heroine…By turns funny and moving but never predictable. The plot contains a number of surprises and raises thoughtful questions.’ – USA Today
‘Funny, surprising and heartbreaking, populated with characters who are affecting and amusing…This is a thought-provoking, thoroughly entertaining novel that captures the complexity of love.’ – People
Jojo Moyes is both a novelist and journalist with her novels including the Sunday Times number one bestseller The One Plus One and Me Before You which was a New York Times bestseller and has sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Moyes is amongst a select few authors to have had three novels on the New York Times bestseller list at one time. In 2015 After You, the sequel to Me Before You, quickly became an international bestseller after being published. Moyes was heavily involved with, having written the screenplay for, the film adaptation of Me Before You which was released in 2016 and starred actors such as Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games and Love, Rosie), Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones), Jenna Coleman (Dr Who and Victoria) and Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter).
For quite a long time, I would see Me Before You in bookshops and would see that it was a bestseller, yet I never bought it (I have no idea why). Then, when the film began to be advertised, I decided I wanted to see it quite badly but wanted to read the book first, as I usually try to do. Despite buying the book, there were others higher up my to be read pile and so the book ended up sat on my shelf for a few months, until recently, when I finally picked it up and got stuck in.
The plot itself centres around Louisa Clark and Will Traynor. Will was a successful businessman living in London with a job that he loved and a big life full of adventures and love; but that is all taken away from him in one cruel moment. An accident leaves him quadriplegic (paralysed from the chest down) and after time Will realises that he has limited options: he falls totally out of love with life. Yet he has no idea who is about to come bursting into his life. Louisa is happy with her life until she becomes suddenly unemployed and realises her job prospects are poor. Her family needs the money and after many visits to the job centre she finds herself employed by the Traynor’s to care for their son, Will. They already employ Nathan, who takes care of the medical side, but Louisa is there to care for Will’s daily needs (he is unable to do even the smallest things like feed himself) and to keep him company. Their relationship is not always easy, but gradually things change as Louisa begins to take Will on outings and the two slowly open up. Yet what neither of them could have ever imagined is how they would change one another forever.
As the plot grew, I felt a connection with this book. I have never experienced what the characters go through, but somehow, they felt so real to me and everything that happened struck a chord inside of me. I was so emotionally connected to the novel that I could be walking down the street and would find myself thinking about the characters and what was happening to them in great detail. To me, this showed how brilliant this book is: you really feel you know the characters and the plot sticks with you and takes you on a journey.
The novel starts with a prologue which is narrated in the third person. This is important because the prologue is about the day of Will’s accident and gives the reader a small insight into what Will was like before and how his life used to be. Almost the entirety of the rest of the novel is narrated in the first person by Lou. As with many books, this means the reader relates the most to Lou because we know her innermost thoughts and feelings and are nearly following her journey more than anyone else’s. Personally, I think for the plot of this novel, having Lou narrate the story works really well. However, there are a couple of chapters that are narrated by other characters: chapter eight – Mrs Traynor, chapter nineteen – Nathan, chapter twenty one – Mr Traynor, chapter twenty five – Katrina (Lou’s sister). Although there are only four of these chapters, I think they are really important and add to the novel because these chapters are strategically placed. They could come where we need to know and understand a character’s choices and opinions in more detail, which is not possible unless heard from them directly, or it could be so that the reader hears something from another character, rather than Will or Lou, which shows what the other characters are aware of and leaves the reader in the dark for a while on how Will and Lou are feeling, which piques your interest.
Due to the narrative perspective being that of Lou, this means that we loose Will’s thoughts which is a bit of a shame because that could have been interesting, but I quite enjoyed trying to work out how he feels. I do not know the reason Moyes chose not to include a chapter from Will’s perspective, there could be a number of reasons: I think it would be difficult to write as Will, or maybe it is enough that we do hear a lot of his thoughts as he is pretty open, or perhaps Moyes wanted there to be that gap so that the reader has to understand Will in a different way.
In fact, I think that this is the first novel I have read where I really had to put myself in each of the character’s shoes at various points in order to get a feeling for them and to truly understand their thoughts, feelings and actions. I really liked this about the novel because it added an extra depth for me and meant my connection to the characters was even stronger. Furthermore, I think to understand some of the character’s decisions and feelings, it is vital to walk in their shoes, else you may not fully understand them and will likely feel a different way about the novel.
The first character that I would like to introduce is Lou. Lou is a very interesting character because for various reasons she has decided that the life she has (living at home, and not with her boyfriend, and working in a café) is enough for her, which is fine, but it becomes clear to the reader, and is clear to Will pretty quickly, that she is capable of more.
What I like about Lou is her determination: she always refuses to give up on Will and goes above and beyond for him. She obviously has a caring nature and this is displayed early on when Will has a fever and she panics about him. Lou is also a family person and she never seems to complain about the fact that she still lives with them and it is clear that she loves her family a lot and is happy to help and support them when needed.
The main aspect of Lou that really shows her character is her clothes. Her choices can be a little wacky but she obviously has courage and is more than happy to be herself. She is not swayed by what anyone else thinks, even if Will makes a comment, and I love a female character who is strong, intelligent and capable, which Lou is, and so much more.
I think that I related to some aspects of Lou, but mostly I think that she is the kind of person you would want to be friends with. She has a great personality and is loyal, caring and seems like a fun person to be around. She is also very down-to-earth, which is clear when she bites the tag out of Will’s shirt collar despite being in a fancy setting. Lou is also the kind of character that grows and learns throughout the novel which I always like because this adds to her feeling real and us going on that journey with her. I think that she surprises herself by what she learns and experiences and by the end of the novel she had grown so much from who she was at the beginning.
Naturally, I am going to look at Will next. What interests me the most about Will is how he not only changes throughout the novel, but that he has already changed quite a lot due to his accident. Although the prologue only gives a small insight, there are often hints at who he used to be and what he was like as a person. Will is clearly a very clever and cultured guy, having travelled a lot, and I liked that he passes on his knowledge to Lou. He speaks about the adventures he has had and gets her to read new books and watch films she would not usually watch. This showed a generosity to his character and also a side that wanted to help Lou because he saw something in her and knew how much she could be capable of.
However, there is another side to Will. He can have foul moods and has just about given up on life since realising it will not get much better for him. This is a really hard side of Will to read about, especially once you care for the character, but this is one of those instances where it is so important to put yourself in his shoes, listen to what he is saying, and try to understand why he feels the way that he does. Yet this side of Will can sometimes bring out a tenderness in him. For example, after Will and Lou return home one night, he wants to wait a moment before going in so that he can enjoy not feeling like someone who needs constant help, which made me feel so much sympathy for him and it is moments like this where you cannot help but feel your heart break for him.
‘I just…want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just for a few minutes more.’
Something that I really liked about Will was his sarcasm. I liked this because it was not a nasty sarcasm, intended to put people down, but rather, a sarky kind of humour that made me laugh and was often a part of Will and Lou’s relationship that I enjoyed, especially because Lou knew how to respond in a similar manner. Will shows his sarcastic side at the concert when he had a tag in his collar which was irritating him, so Lou asks politely if there are any scissors in the bag, to which Will responds, ‘I don’t know, Clark. Believe it or not, I rarely pack it myself.’ This is slightly rude, but also made me smile a little because the line holds humour and is just the way that Will is, especially at this point. Lou is never put off and comes out with her own lines that are just as good. When Will gives her direction on her dress she says, ‘Only you, Will Traynor, could tell a woman how to wear a bloody dress.’
Following on from this, I would like to talk more about the relationship that Will and Lou have because it is the centre of the novel and is the main reason that I loved it so much. Although, at first, the pair seem to have difficulties with each other, it is the night when Will is unwell that they first start to break down their barriers and let each other in. Lou is clearly very concerned about Will, showing a care for him already, and as he is in a more vulnerable state, Will has less energy to block Lou out, instead saying, ‘Tell me something good.’ (This phrase becomes something between the pair after this.) The two share stories, continuing to bond, during which time Lou tells Will all abut her bumblebee tights that she used to love as a child. I also think that at this stage the two are intrigued by one another and are curious to learn as much as they can.This is only the first episode where Will and Lou share intimate details but this is where it all begins and their friendship and trust really starts to build. As the book progresses the couple share more private insights which shows how much they trust each other and feel their close bond.
‘You only get one life. It’s actually our duty to live it as fully as possible.’
An integral part of the story is how Will and Lou change each other. This is something that happens gradually, and when you reach the end of the book you look back and see how different the two characters were before they met. Often, they change themselves indirectly as well. Whilst taking Will on outings, Lou opens herself up to new experiences that will change her. For example, after hearing the orchestra at the concert she says,
‘I felt the music like a physical thing; it didn’t just sit in my ears, it flowed through me, around me, made my senses vibrate.’
Will changes himself too by trying to teach Lou new things. In doing this, he shows himself how he can be as a person and develops feelings and a bond with Lou that he no longer imagined himself capable of. Lou helps Will in this change by refusing to admit that his life cannot be great. She tries to show him the life he could have and is always being there for him. Indirectly, she breaks down his barriers simply by being herself.
Something small that I felt was interesting is the fact that Will refers to Lou as ‘Clark’. Not Miss Clark, or Louisa or even Lou. I think the former two are too formal for their relationship, whilst the latter is too informal. Will’s choice actually reflects their relationship perfectly in that it is slightly cheeky, friendly and informal whilst keeping a slight formality to stop their relationship being too familiar, after all, Lou does work for him.
Of course, there is also a romantic element to Will and Lou’s relationship but that is something I do not want to go into too much as it is both beautiful and complicated at the same time. So I will leave the romance to the book, but will give a glimpse at it through these lovely lines:
‘You…are something else, Clark.’
‘You make me into someone I couldn’t even imagine.’
Nathan is a character that I think Moyes uses cleverly. When Lou comes in, Nathan is already working for the Traynor’s so he knows Will and is able to provide Lou with support and information. He is also someone that Will trusts, meaning he slips easily into their friendship and he and Will enjoy teasing Lou, for example, they suggest one of her dresses makes her look like a maid and suggest she should be cleaning. Nathan is also a clever creation because when Lou wants to take Will on outings, it could seem like a bad idea in case something goes wrong, but with Nathan there too, there is a perfect opportunity and the Traynor’s can be satisfied that Will will be okay.
As I contemplated the character’s families, I realised that the story is also about how Will and Lou are influenced by their families and how the choices they make then impact back onto their family. Will has made an agreement with his family (that I will not go into) and he has done it purely for them, whilst Lou is working with Will, originally, because her family needs the money. Knowing the Traynor’s and the Clark’s adds to the feeling of Will and Lou being real. The two families are from very different backgrounds and their contrasts are clear, yet they both have problems and are going through a hard time and end up linked via Lou and Will which is interesting to explore.
Earlier, I talked about the first time Lou and Will really bond and another important episode in this is the night that Will takes Lou to the castle grounds after closing. The pair are able to wander freely and as this is later in the novel they are happy to open up more. To begin with, their stories are of past visits to the castle, but when Will suggests Lou does the maze, the conversation soon deepens. Lou ends up in a state and faces up to an event in her past that she has tried to avoid ever since but winds up confiding in Will about on this night. To help her, Will tells her something deeply personal about himself and this is a moment where the deepest fears of each character come through, but it seems that in order to progress, they have to face them. Will is really gentle with Lou and his care for her really shows through as he gives her advice:
‘Some mistakes…just have greater consequences than others.’
One of my favourite episodes has to be the wedding. Once at the reception the pair seem to relax and enjoy themselves and I think that when a character feels an emotion strongly, like happiness, their actions are amplified and their feelings become contagious to the reader. It was enjoyable for me to read a section where Will and Lou were so happy and were having fun, especially because by this point I cared for them so deeply. There is definitely some flirting in this episode and I loved how it all remained light, especially as Will and Lou teased each other about how they used to be so different. I could not help but laugh when Will said:
‘Yes. But in my defence, Clark, I was an arse.’
Will also delivers one of my favourite lines at this point as the two dance with Lou sat on Will’s lap whilst he spins circles.
‘Sometimes, Clark, you are pretty much the only thing that makes me want to get up in the morning.’
Somehow, this episode manages to deliver flirting, amusement, happiness and tenderness in the space of a few pages and it was a delight to read.
In contrast, a hard-hitting topic is hit upon during the novel: the right to die. Will feels he has little to live for and the change in his life due to the accident has been so big that he feels entirely stuck. The problem for Will is that, yes, his life can still hold possibilities and there is support and different activities for quadriplegics, but he lived such a big and full life beforehand that now, to him, his possibilities are so small and he is unable to have anything close to what he had before and still wants now. The novel does not call for deep thinking on this subject, which is good, but it was something I thought about as part of trying to understand each character as I thought about their views towards the subject. This was another instance of getting inside each character’s head, especially Will’s, to try to understand their views and decisions. This is a topic that has caused so much debate over the past few years and I liked that the book gave a few different opinions, in the form of different characters, and allowed me to think about my own views in a private setting.
Although I said at the beginning that I would not go into the disability side of this book, I would like to talk about it a little as it does feature. Before reading this novel, I had come across news stories and debates about disability, but that is usually a more general scale as opposed to knowing someone personally. Of course, Will is a work of fiction, but I still felt close to him and tried to understand him as if he were real. I thought about how his life has changed since the accident, and about how he feels and why he feels that way. This brought up things that I had not really considered before, such as how difficult it could be to adapt to a life of disability if you were previously able bodied. Also, in Will’s case, and I imagine most other cases, daily life is such a struggle and help is required with so many things that I cannot imagine how that feels, to need help with even small tasks and to have barely any independence. In the case of this novel and Will, I realised that disability can also bring other health problems, like how Will struggles to regulate his own temperature and how illnesses such as pneumonia can be really scary.
Moreover, as I read the novel, I realised that there was a battle going on inside of me. This is one of those books where thinking about the ending is really hard because there is so much to consider. First of all, you have to think from each character’s point of view and what they might want to happen. Then there is the problem I had: a battle between your head and your heart. By this I mean that in my head I had ideas about what I thought would actually happen and how the story would go, but there were things that I wanted to happen in my heart and the two did not always match up which meant that I had to face that what I wanted to happen might not be what was going to happen. Although this was really hard and provoked a lot of feelings within me, I think that this added to the story and the whole idea of thinking about where the story was leading and what would happen to the characters. A story where you can guess the ending is not always bad, if it is an ending you are happy with, but a story where you are totally torn by the character’s wishes, your own wishes and what you think will happen creates a whole other tone to the book and feeling within the reader.
With everything that I have just said in mind, I do not want to say too much about the ending because if you know what will happen then I do not think the experience is the same. What I will say is that after finishing the novel, I was left with plenty to think about. I thought about the character’s and how what they wanted and their actions had impacted the ending. I thought about my feelings about the end and whether I felt it was the right choice by Moyes, and I have to say I think it was, especially when you try to understand how the character’s felt and what they wanted. I also went back into the story and considered things like how the accident affected Will overall and how he and Lou would have been different had it not happened. Additionally, I felt like the character’s that Moyes introduced me to were simply incredible and I just adored Will and Lou and feel like I will take this book with me because it made such an impact. Sometimes a book just gives you a special feeling and connects with you and pulls at something deep inside of you and your thoughts and feelings become lost within the book, the plot and the characters. For me, this was one of those books.
‘Poignant and beautifully written, this book will stay with you long after you’ve put it down’ – Star
‘When I finished this novel, I didn’t want to review it: I wanted to reread it. Which might seem perverse if you know that for most of the last hundred pages I was dissolved in tears.’ – New York Times
So, would I recommend this book? Yes. I think that answer is pretty clear from how I have rambled on (sorry about that). Honestly, I personally loved this book and I know that not everyone will and that is fine, but I did. I just want to tell everyone about it and I sincerely hope that my review has done it justice because that is something I have really worried about as I have been writing. When you really enjoy a book and want people to read it, it is so hard to write a review because you really want to convey the right feeling and live up to your own feelings about the book, so I hope I did that, and I encourage you to read the novel for yourself and go fall in love with Lou and Will.
‘Just live well. Just live.’
Me before you – Jojo Moyes, first published by Penguin books in 2012, this film tie-in edition published 2016, 009, RRP £7.99, ISBN 978-0-718-18118-5