Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Me Before You

I cannot for the life of me explain how it is that I missed this gem last year. An incredibly funny, heartbreaking and thought-provoking read, Me Before You is a nearly perfect love story that movingly deals with issues of life, love and death. Written by British author Jojo Moyes, Me Before You is set in the small English village of Stortfold where quirky 26-year old Louisa (Lou) Clark has always lived a small life; never venturing outside her tiny village, she knows its every nook and cranny to the extent that she even knows how many steps it takes from the bus stop to her home (158 steps). Lou is happy and safe in the cramped home that she shares with her mom, dad, grandfather, sister Treena and 5-year old nephew Thomas.

Louisa loved her simple life – she loved her boyfriend Patrick; she loved her job, especially the motley crew of regulars and tourists that stopped into the Buttered Bun on the way to the nearby castle but sadly that part of her life changed when her boss decided to close up shop. After a brief stint at a chicken processing factory and a couple fast food chains, Lou’s luck changes when the job placement office sends her on an interview for a temporary six month position of care assistant to Will Traynor, an attractive, wealthy and angry 34-year old trapped in a wheelchair since a motorbike accident left him a quadriplegic.

First introductions leave much to be desired as Lou is awarded with a Christy Brown (think Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot) impersonation from Will that scares the bejeezus out of her, with things progressively getting worst from there until the day she treats Will like a man, not an invalid and calls him out on his shabby treatment of her. Slowly a bond of friendship is formed that eventually becomes so much more, as Lou slowly realizes Will’s happiness has becomes intrinsically linked with her own, but then she overhears a shocking secret about Will’s plans for the future that make her question her believes and ultimately resets the course of her life.

Tormented by her newfound knowledge Lou is torn whether or not to continue her job, but with her sister’s guidance decides not only to stay on but to change Will’s mind on life and love by showing him how much beauty and joy there is in this world even in his present condition. Will had a dream life, big and bold, before the accident and is intent on expanding Lou’s horizons by helping her to live her life to the fullest, telling her “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.” Set on her mission, Lou is determined to come out victorious in her battle for Will’s future for losing isn’t an option, especially since she’s already given Will her heart.

Me Before You is an unforgettable book that hauntingly lingers in your heart and mind with the warmth of its humor and the poignancy of its tale of friendship and love. While the narrative offers all of the sentimentality of a romance novel, Will and Lou’s connection goes deeper than any steamy love scene (of which there are none) or soul-stirring kisses. In fact, the book has wrapped a profound and complex discussion of life and death issues and loving someone even when doing so will break your heart, into what at first glance seems your typical chick-lit romance novel.

I was enchanted by Lou’s quirkiness and warmth from the beginning. Her vulnerabilities and self-doubt were endearing and in the face of Will’s contemptuous attitude at the start of their relationship made her compassion and understanding all the more praiseworthy. My heart went out to Will and I empathized with every bit of his frustration and pain at the suffering and indignities he now lived with due to his condition. The characters are well-developed, flawed and real, but truly the best part of the book is the slowly evolving friendship between these two people from different worlds who come to understand each other better than anyone else and bring out the best in one another; their connection is both sweet and touching without being sappy or overly sentimental so that the romance when it blossomed seemed a natural organic response to all the moments that preceded it.

The depiction of Will’s struggles was wonderfully written with compassion and integrity so as to offer an insightful and at times heartbreaking look at the thoughts and feelings of someone disabled, whom like Will faces an uncertain future where their health will only deteriorate, where they will always be reliant on someone else for their care – unable to eat, dress, or communicate with the outside world without help. Beyond the obvious loss of movement and freedom, Will faced aches from loss of muscle, stomach ulcers from countless pills, pressure sores from being seated in the same position and the utter unfairness of living with the pain and discomfort from extremities he cannot use or feel. It is a grim and tragic look that helps us to more fully grasp the sense of helplessness that makes Will and others like him want to take control of their lives and live them (or not) as they see fit.

Anger, sadness, heartbreak and joy; those are but a few of the feelings you’ll experience when reading Me Before You. A must-read complex story on what it really means to love someone selflessly and unconditionally.