This book was truly difficult for me to read, and this review is going to be truly difficult for me to write. I’m sure this review is inevitably going to be more personal than most. It seems funny now that my mom sent me this book to “cheer me up.” After my first thoracic epidural, about a month ago now, I couldn’t stop crying. I was in a sad place, knowing with certainty that epidurals weren’t going to be a solution to my pain, that my doctor was hesitant to try intercostal nerve blocks – the only other block left, but most importantly feeling that I was completely alone in these realizations. My pain has been peaking recently, and those occasional hermit phases where I lose touch with the people I know – I was, maybe still am, in the middle of one. I paid money for a cab to take me to the appointment because I had no one to drive me. After, I was more sore than expected, and laid on ice for 2 days. I had trouble moving. And I had no one to call. Well, no one that lived near me – no one who could come over, no one who could help with food or basic activities, no one who I felt would want to hear from me only to pick up the phone and hear something shitty about my health…again. So instead I cried.
And I had wanted to read this book for a long time, so my mom sent it to me. She just wanted me to stop crying. But neither of us knew exactly what we were getting into. I just knew it was a book I could name that I wanted to read; while it had been recommended by numerous friends, I had never gotten a full plot summary.
Me Before You is a beautifully written novel. There is some repetitiveness to the dialogue and thematic relationships, but Moyes manages to avoid it actually sounding repetitive. The book isn’t a thriller or mystery by any means, it is simply a story of a quadriplegic and the caregiver who tries to give him a better quality of life, and yet I stayed up long nights reading it – desperate to know what happened next. How was their relationship developing? What was she going to say to him? How was he going to react? What were their everyday LIVES going to look like? In that way, I would say Moyes is a truly brilliant writer. She took what is at its core a very everyday story, the very believable story of one person’s small little world in a house in a town that has little to do with anything outside their four walls, and she turned it into something that keeps the reader awake at night with anticipation. Moyes manages to show us the gripping reality in the everyday: the development of relationships is fascinating.
I will warn that ahead there will be a slight spoiler – only a bit of the plot development, not where it leads or any major developments – still, if you are the type who likes to avoid spoilers of any type, I would stop reading here.
It takes Moyes the better part of 100 pages to get there, but eventually the central portion of the plot really comes to life: as it turns out, Will Turner, the quadriplegic, has decided to die via assisted suicide in 6 months. He decided this because his quality of life can never be what it was prior to the loss of use of his limbs. In fact, it may be a very low quality of life in general given the health issues associated with his condition, and he can never anticipate getting any better. The caregiver, Louisa Clark, has essentially been hired by his family as a pleasant figure to give him company and joy during those 6 months (he already has an actual medical caregiver), and ultimately – hopefully – show him that though it may not be what it was before, a life without use of limbs can still be a life of love, of adventure, and of happiness.
A friend of mine who read this told me that she read it with her book club, and while all agreed the writing was quite beautiful and moving, the story well-developed and intriguing, the conversation in the club got very heated because the topic of his chosen impending death was so controversial. Initially, I found this interesting. I wondered if anyone in her book club had ever had a life threatening illness or been in a great deal of permanent discomfort. My condition does not threaten my life, and technically, TECHNICALLY, there is the hope that I will wake up one day and it will just have gone away on its own – so there is no one who can medically write down that there is no chance I will ever get better. But feeling all this pain, day in, day out, thinking about the isolation I was feeling post-epidural when I started reading this novel, all I could think about was how sympathetic I was to Will Turner.
I know, I KNOW. I’m not suicidal. But I can more than understand how ceasing to exist sounds so much better than the actual existence your health has forced you into. There’s an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (it feels cathartic for me to watch medical dramas – don’t hate on my TV choices, hater) where a teenage girl has a severe spinal condition, and it causes her to be bent over at 90 degrees permanently. They offer her a very experimental surgery to fix it, but it comes with serious risks, including a higher than average chance of death. Her mother immediately says no. The teenager then turns to her mother and says, “Mom. I know you still think death is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but I’m proof that it’s not” or something along those lines. And I think about that episode at least once a week, because medical conditions like mine, like that teenage girl’s, where you aren’t dying, they can so often feel worse than dying. A world where I can cease to exist with no pain sometimes sounds…magical. The idea that I might exist as a normal human in this world gets further away with each failed procedure. Even on the highest doses of narcotics I sometimes have crippling pain reaching for the bathroom cabinet. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.
And so I get Will Turner, who has lost use of all 4 of his limbs, whose character was a prior ladies’ man adrenaline junkie, wanting to cease to exist. Throughout the book while every other character was trying to change his mind, I was silently supporting him.
At one point, Louisa is telling a childhood story about a pair of black and yellow bee tights she used to love with all of her being and how her father threw them away without ever letting her know. Will was making fun of her. In retort, Louisa begins (as she narrates the novel), ” ‘Oh, you can mock. Didn’t you ever love anything that much?’ I could barely see him now, the room shrouded in the near dark. I could have turned on the overhead light, but something stopped me. And almost as soon as I realized what I had said, I wished I hadn’t. ‘Yes,’ he said, quietly. ‘Yes, I did.’ “ There are more of those moments than not in these pages, where you realize what it must be like to be sick, how difficult, how frustrating, how nostalgic.
And in the same way how difficult it is to be close to someone who is feeling all of these things. Moyes unapologetically shows us the reality of the difficulties in Louisa’s life, by virtue of being close with this man, with just as much intensity as the difficulties in Will’s. How much Louisa wants to cheer him up, show him the colors of the wind (or something?) and breathe the life he is letting pass him by straight back into him. She spends just as much time researching and trying to help him as she actually spends with him. I think my friends and family must deal with this frustration often, and it is likely tied to my difficulty in keeping new friends around – how hard is it to be close to someone whose life includes daily obstacles? How selfish is it not to be cheered up by those trying so hard to be cheerful, hopeful for you?
As much as there are those quiet moments in this book which point out the difficulties of illness for those experiencing it and their loved ones, there are moments like Will Turner at a wedding, having as much fun as any other guest. Dancing with Louisa in his own way, getting drunk and charming anyone who dares talk to him. Those moments which also make the reader remember – there is still a normal life, a normal relationship, developing here.
At its essence, this book really shows that you can choose what you are going to embrace, whether your issue be health or otherwise: the loss of a life you previously envisioned yourself living, or the completely new life that will hold an undercurrent of sadness but the potential of joyous moments.
And the part that causes uproar amongst book clubs is that Moyes never comments on which choice is better. She uses the dialogue and narration of her characters to present strong, rock-solid arguments for both sides – the need for suicide because of the loss of envisioned life, and the need for embracing the joy of what life is left. Allowing each character to be equally convincing on the topic, Moyes leaves us with the idea that there is no right or wrong on not only assisted suicide, but the wider issues at play, like how to handle grief, how to handle loss, how to handle a brand new unexpected life. Is one justified in refusing to let go of the reality of loss (the wallowing of it), or is one wrong for refusing to embrace the rest of what life is in front of them? Moyes leaves her readers in the grey area of what feels like a black and white argument. Readers tend to find themselves relating only to one character’s emotional argument (as I so strongly related to Will), and Moyes leaves them no answer on whether this character was correct – forcing readers to wonder, “Can I truly be universally right about this?” If nothing else, Moyes’ work will quite brilliantly give you pause for continuous reflection on whether there is any correct way to handle the unexpected in life, or loss of life (even if you didn’t want to do so).
I won’t tell you how Louisa and Will progress, or what Will’s choice is in the end (this is coming out as a movie in 2016, you know). But I will advise that before the movie comes out read this book – it’s a damn well written one, and we both know the movie is never as good as the book.
I was e-mailing this same friend after I read the book. I told her how much I sobbed throughout it, what a terrible choice it was to read this in an effort to cheer myself up, and she told me how much she stayed up through the night reading and cried throughout it as well – proving it isn’t just those of us who are unhealthy that it strikes a chord with. If you are going to read it, some of my best advice would be to be prepared for a compelling read and a lot of tears. Oh – and that it’s worth it.
As for my mom, she dealt with it by buying me another book to make up for all the crying I did while I was reading Me Before You. Look out for a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling, on her. (She really hates all the crying.)