Me Before You, By Jojo Moyes

Listen and learn from an odd couple

Daneet Steffens
Sunday 08 January 2012 01:00

Louisa Clark is forlorn when she loses her beloved café job; not even her marathon-mad boyfriend can cheer her up.

She is wandering aimlessly in and out of the job centre when she's offered a six-month contract as a companion to quadriplegic Will Traynor, a former adrenaline junkie and City worker whose life has been intractably changed by a run-in with a motorcycle. They make an unusual pair, throwing each other completely off-balance. Indeed, the whole venture gets off to a bad start when Will welcomes her with his best Christy Brown impression. Will has given up on life and Louisa is determined to change his mind, but Louisa's limited ambitions frustrate Will: the town in which she lives with her family has been her whole life, and for reasons which become clear later in the novel, she's fiercely attached to the idea of keeping it that way. Louisa, it seems, is fated to live an adventurous life solely through her wardrobe: emerald green satin pumps, blue sequinned shorts and a "Pucci-type" mini-dress made from her grandfather's curtains.

If you think this tale sounds obvious – she brightens his life, he acts as her Pygmalion – think again: Jojo Moyes draws on the skills she honed as a journalist to create a clear, candid picture of the practicalities of Will's situation – the health issues, the unrelenting pain – while her novelist's mind casts illuminating light on her characters' reactions to the highly emotive and topical subject of assisted dying.

Moyes enriches her characters as they react to the most challenging of situations, as well as to normal, everyday ones, in scene after well-wrought scene. There's a tragicomic outing to the horse races, and a delightful instance of Will and his male nurse advising Louisa on what to wear for a fancy evening. But it's a birthday dinner at Louisa's home that hits a particular high note, offering the most poignant moment of the entire book – its soul, really – as well as a pitch-perfect hilarious one, delivered by Will with a spot-on one-line zinger.

At times, Will's condition intrudes scarily into the novel – a sudden bout of pneumonia, a potentially fatal infection flaring up – but just as tangibly, a love story puts forth tentative tentacles: the first time Louisa shaves Will's face becomes a sensual experience that completely takes her mind – and the reader's – off any disability; the way she later removes a tag from Will's outfit in a concert hall drives that sensation home.

This is Lou and Will's story and Moyes is generous with both: while Will's unhappiness is flung into searing relief via a heartfelt explanation of why he doesn't want to return to his favourite Parisian café, equally powerful is Louisa's initial reaction to classical music. "Tell me something good," Will says to Louisa at two transformative junctures of the book: Me Before You, at its heart, is about two people who properly listen to each other; it is something good.

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