Me Before You an Unorthodox Story of Love and Social Class

Jojo Moyes
Penguin Books, 400 pp; ISBN 978014124544.
* * * *

Me Before You is a love story–of sorts. Two very improbable characters are thrown together by misfortune and tragedy: Louisa "Lou" Clark, a 26-year-old working-class woman, and Will Traynor, a 35-year-old upper crust high-flying London investor. Both lives take a dramatic turn–Lou's when she loses a café job that helps support her family, and Will's when he distractedly walks into traffic, is struck by a motorbike, and is left a quadriplegic.

Few people think about social class as much as the Brits like Moyes, who romanticizes neither the workaday proles nor the haute bourgeoisie. Lou lives in a shabby row house with her parents and single-mother sister, Katrina, in a Hertfordshire village that's about as exciting as watching the teakettle boil. Its sole claim to fame is Stortford castle, a place where tourists gather, but people like the Clarks visit only on school trips. Clark's family is too ineffectual to be dysfunctional. Everyone is just trying to make do–Lou's dad is on the dole and trying to pacify a wife who's a bit 'round the twist, Katrina coping by playing the victim/guilt/still going to be somebody role to the hilt, and Lou putting up with boyfriend Patrick, once pudgy-but-fun and now a personal trainer more concerned about his own body fat/muscle ratio than Lou's body.

On the other side of town, miles away physically and socially, Will sulks in his ruined body and in a home filled with money but devoid of passion or compassion. He is angry, unapologetic about his moral and intellectual superiority, and contemptuous of the notion that anyone should, as Lou has been doing, simply make do. She enters the unhappy Traynor household because she needs a job. Though she knows little of what she's getting into, Lou becomes one of Will's caregivers.

A relationship that begins with mutual contempt evolves into one of respect and love by a different name. Will considers his life over and has extracted a promise from his mother, Camilla that he will submit to caregivers for one year. If he finds no joy, Camilla has agreed to allow Will to go to a Swiss clinic and end his life humanely. Moyes employs the classic literary ploy of a race against the clock. (She cleverly juxtaposes Patrick's obsession with his running times with Will's count down.) Will comes to accept Lou, who is his match in irreverence and sarcasm. Over time, he finds himself oddly attracted to her bubbly optimism and plucky obstinacy. Mainly, though, it angers him that she's stuck in a town he calls a "placemat." He hates it in Hertfordshire and thinks everyone should.

We're not sure if Will is in love with Lou in his own way or simply living vicariously through her. For her part, Lou does everything she can to try to make Will consider that life is worthwhile, even when experienced from a wheelchair. Field trips become one of the ways through which their two worlds converge—Lou is elevated and Will voluntarily descends from a social perch he comes to see as shallow and hypocritical. Soon we don't know who is saving whom or from what. Both of our protagonists cling stubbornly to the belief that everyone has the right to live according to one's own terms, but each acknowledges that those terms are more fluid than once thought. The book's ending is morally ambiguous in a delicious way and will either be exactly as you'd predict, or completely the opposite. That either would be feasible and satisfactory is among the book's many charms.

Moyes is a much stronger storyteller than prose wizard, but her tale is so strong it will draw you in and make you care deeply about Lou and Will. I give the book kudos for doing something American novels seldom do any more–consider social class. Moyes deserves a second shout for how she handles the British class system. If in America we don't discuss class at all, in Britain, writers often do so by contrasting paste-up yobbos against twit-like toffs–neither with well-oiled brains. Me Before You shows characters with the capacity for self-reflection and growth, so much so that they can reinvent themselves here and in the hereafter.-- Rob Weir

No comments: