Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes

Viking, 2012. ISBN 978-0-670-02660-9.
Reviewed by Olga Livshin
Posted on 04/09/2013

Fiction: Mainstream

A beautiful, heartbreaking love story. The emotional ambience of this novel is on a par with Romeo and Juliet, although the synopsis is nothing like the Bard's homage to the juvenile Verona lovers. In fact, the maturity of both protagonists, the agonizing visceral cognition behind their decisions, makes the novel much deeper and infinitely sadder, closer to the modern reader's core. I don't cry when I watch Romeo and Juliet. I cried when I read this book.

The first protagonist, Lou, is a twenty-seven-year-old woman from a poor working family in a small town in England. Single and still living with her parents, without a profession or an ambition, Lou takes a job as a caregiver to a quadriplegic man, Will, a few years older than herself.

He couldn't be more unlike her. In his previous life, Will was a brilliant financial shark, handsome, erudite, and wealthy. International deals and extreme sports, risky travels and beautiful women comprised his elite world until two years earlier, when a freak auto accident in front of his home put a rude stop to it all and rendered him totally disabled, dependent on others for everything.

The six months Lou and Will spend together, which account for the bulk of the book, force them both to explore each other's social and personal zones. Their mutual emotional journey, from antagonism to acceptance and understanding, widens their horizons, enriches their lives, and irrevocably changes them both. While their two different realms begin to mesh, their souls awaken, blooming into an all-consuming love too late for a happy ending.

The author paints vivid pictures of the locations where the action takes place: Lou's shabby home, Will's expensive villa, a tropical island resort; but the appearance of the characters is blurry. Although Lou's propensity for gaudy clothing makes her into a brightly-clad silhouette, I couldn't visualize her face. Neither could I see Will, except for his wheelchair, which defines him. Both protagonists seem ordinary on the surface, but their emotional landscapes are glaringly naked, gripping my heart in the painful clutches of empathy.

The novel touches on several topics—family dynamics, class distinctions, hope, and grief—but it concentrates on one controversial theme: euthanasia. When is it allowed? Who makes such a lethal decision? Is love enough to avert the tragic end? Is it a tragic end after all, when life becomes unendurable? Every character in the story faces this dilemma. Everyone has an opinion, and often those opinions clash, adding layers of tension to the story. And the author is never didactic; she invites the reader to contemplate the pros and cons and make their own judgments.

Despite the profound pathos of the story, its conclusion feels unmistakably life-affirming to me. Written in simple and masterful language, Me Before You is one of the best novels I've read in a while.

Jojo Moyes is a British novelist and journalist, author of 12 novels. She is one of the few authors to have twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists' Association. Her work has been translated into eleven languages. Learn more about this author on her website.

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