By many standards Me Before You is a good book. It is a fast-paced one-sitting read. I cared about the characters. It made me cry. I cried quite a bit. The ability to make me cry does not mean that much. So can TV commercials. How good Me Before You is depends on what you were expecting.
I was expecting more. It was highly recommended by friends and well-reviewed in the New York Times, so I expected better. From the beginning, the story seemed very much a part of the romance genre, poor, working class woman works for hard, bitter, cultured rich man and they fall in love. There is just one complication.
Our rather ordinary, though sassy young heroine is named Louisa Clark. She is hired to provide companionship and non-specialized care to our hero Will Traynor, a slightly older man who is now a quadriplegic. He is understandably bitter, not enabled in any way by suffering. That’s a good point in my view, since the nobility of suffering is constantly overrated by those who don’t suffer.
Now the complication. We soon learn that he plans to commit suicide – traveling to Switzerland to use the compassionate services of Dignitas, a death with dignity organization. He has agreed to wait six months, a harrowing bargain with his parents, and they have hired Lou to provide daytime companionship for those months. When Lou learns of the bargain, she resolves to get him to change his mind by providing “adventures” that will prove to him that life is worth living.
In the background there is her family, hard-working salt-of-the-earth types plucked from a sit-com complete with a slightly batty granddad. Then there is his family, who are of course, distant, dysfunctional, and directly out of a dozen Masterpiece Theatre series. Nathan, the nurse, is unrelentingly wise and perfect in every way. Patrick, her boyfriend, is a personal trainer obsessed with himself an his training and annoying in every way. What with Lou being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Will being the rich, successful, handsome romantic hero, the only thing keeping this from being a Harlequin book of the month is that damn wheelchair.
And that’s the crux of this story’s failings for me. The wheelchair and the many accommodations it demands is the least predictable and most original character in the book. But there, Moyes failed readers. The book felt researched rather than imagined. Moyes had a story to tell outside her experience and her obvious commitment to serving the community of disabled well, led her to writing almost clinical text and prose that felt more appropriate for a brochure than a romance novel. In her effort to be factual, she failed to be true.
Moyes’ also is a bit of a prissy writer. She’s willing to have a character say “fuck” but dances obliquely around her heroine’s formative trauma that has limited her potential and her aspirations for years. It’s not so oblique that we don’t know what happened, just enough to be a bit silly. The first time, I thought she was foreshadowing for a major revelation en scene with our hero, and that happened as predicted, but again, Moyes was oblique. We all know what happened, but Moyes would not name the act. In contrast to the details of caring for a person who is quadriplegic, this seemed excessively dainty.
My biggest complaints about the characters, though, are with the treatment of the minor characters. Her fiancé Patrick is rather unlikeable, distant and self-obsessed with flashes of petty territoriality. He seems far too self-centered and, frankly, dim, to perpetrate one of the nastier things anyone does in the story. It does not feel true. Her sister is either completely selfish or a fount of wisdom–sometimes at the same time. Far worse, though, the mother takes a position with a ferocity that is not supported by her history in the story. There is no foundation in the novel for that at all. It felt completely false.
There are a few things I liked quite a lot. The irony of naming the hero Will Traynor was not lost. He has a profound effect on Lou’s life, introducing her to music, literature and most of all, her own potential. While Patrick may be a personal trainer, Will Traynor was a much more personal trainer to her. That homophone is deliberate and delightful.
I liked the ambition of the story, the courage to ask serious questions about quality of life, the limits of love in conquering all and whether people have a right to control their destiny in the most absolute form. To ask these serious questions in the context of a relatively conventional romance novel…that took courage.
I like the ending. It’s a romance, so yes, of course it is a happy ending. And that’s not a spoiler, endings can be happy in many ways. Of course, I thought Like Water for Chocolate had a happy ending, too to one of my friend’s never-ending consternation. I think if you enjoy romance novels, you should go right ahead and read Me Before You. It’s not a bad book, just disappointing because there was as much unrealized potential in the book as in Louisa herself.