Tuesday 31 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 155. "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Louise "Lou" Clark works in a cafe, and likes it, helping her parents out with whatever money she can. Her mother spends most of her days taking care of Lou's grandfather, who's recovering from a stroke, so can't work, and due to the recession, there's threats of downsizing at the factory where her father works. Her younger sister, the "smart one", had to drop out of university when she was accidentally knocked up, and now works as a florist, while her five-year-old is minded by her and Lou's mother after school. Lou has also dated the same man for the last seven years, and they have a comfortable sort of a relationship. But since Patrick got into his triathlons, he's more and more focused on exercise than anything else.

So when Lou is told by her boss that he's closing the cafe and moving back to Australia, leaving her with three months' pay and nothing to do, the entire family panics a bit. There's not a lot to do for a twenty-six-year-old with few qualifications, and after a few disastrous short term engagements at a chicken processing plant and in some fast food joint, the options open to Lou are pretty much pole dancer, adult phone line operator or care assistant. So when an high paying opening to be the care assistant for a young man, with assurances that Lou will not be expected to do anything involving personal hygiene or medical care, she doesn't really have a choice but to show up for an interview.

Despite not having any sort of formal qualifications suitable for the job, Mrs Traynor, the patient's mother agrees to give her a chance. It turns out that Lou will spend her days as a companion to Will Traynor, a thirty-year-old former businessman turned paraplegic after a random accident. Having been extremely physically active, travelling all over world before the accident, Will is deeply miserable in his new situation, and while Lou doesn't discover it right away, he's tried to kill himself once and has pressured his parents to agree to let him travel to Switzerland to be allowed assisted suicide. They're desperately hoping he will reconsider, and employing Lou, who despite her family troubles is cheerful, optimistic and very unorthodox, is one of the ways in which they're trying to improve is mood. Will, however, is surly and hostile for much of Lou's first months as his assistant, making her parents' financial worries and the limited six month contract the only reason she puts up with him.

As she starts demanding he treat her with more kindness and respect, their relationship starts to change into something closer to friendship. Will challenges her to try new things, like classical music, subtitled movies and acclaimed novels, which she tends to initially label as "not her thing". Hence, when Lou discovers the true reason why she's only employed for six months, she is sorely tempted to quit, refusing to accept that the Traynors are letting Will commit suicide. She wants to show Will all the things he will be missing out on, and plans a series of elaborate experiences to make him change his mind.

While the book deftly handles difficult issues like severe disability and the moral grey areas around assisted suicide, it doesn't in any way judge one way or the other, and the most important story isn't the romantic feelings that start developing between Louisa and Will as the novel progresses, but the blossoming that Lou does once she overcomes the initial months of her contract, and starts finding some common ground with him.

Having always seen her younger sister as the prettier, smarter one, and putting up with good-natured teasing from her family and boyfriend about her looks, and colourful dress sense, Lou has never really challenged herself to be anything else or reach for more. She got the job in the cafe on a bet, and stayed there until it closed down, quite happy for nothing to change. While Patrick is no longer the man she actually fell in love with, it's easier not to confront the fact that he's far more caught up in his own fitness regime, with no plans to ever propose to her or even ask her to move in with him, and so they stay in a fairly depressing holding pattern. She stopped using the library when she graduated high school, she's never really travelled outside the confines of the little town, and she's never really even dared to dream about anything different or bigger. Will, who is now trapped in his own body and unable to go anywhere without assistance, challenges and questions her choices, refusing to let her just maintain the status quo because it's easier or more comfortable.

Will is hostile, surly and miserable for a reason. Reading about the life he had before his accident, and the way he's viewed by almost everyone when he leaves the house, Moyes makes a very good case for why he may want to choose to end his own life. In making her grand list of adventures, Lou goes online to a variety of message boards and forums, and it's clear that there are people with severe disabilities who find that they have things left to live for, and are able to readjust their expectations in life, but it's also clear that this may not be enough for everyone. It's a moving book, and very sad in places, dealing with serious issues in a very non-preachy way. I also appreciated that the book ends on a very hopeful note. Thank you, Jen K for giving me the book in the Cannonball Book Swap this year!

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