Thursday, May 12, 2016

Me Before You

by JoJo Moyes
Penguin Books     2012
369 pages     Fiction

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes is a romance novel that subtly turns the corner from a love story to a book that poses profound moral questions. And the questions stay with the reader long after the last page is read and the last tear is wiped away. 

Will Traynor, is a 35-year-old wealthy and successful businessman—a man who has it all. In one brief moment, an accident takes everything away from him, rendering him quadriplegic, angry, and suicidal. Enter Louisa Clark, a 26-year-old village girl. She is hired by Will's mother to be his caregiver for six months—not to do the medical work, but to make Will's life easier. Louisa (Lou) has never traveled, has had the same boyfriend for 7 years, still lives in her family home, and has no education beyond high school. She is a bit spineless, but in order to do the necessary job for Will, she is forced to develop skills that she didn't know she had and to grow beyond her expectations for herself.

The moral question posed is a universal one; what is quality of life? In her attempt to find ways to encourage Will to enjoy life, Lou communicates with other quadriplegics and their caregivers, many of whom have found ways to improve their quality of life. Her greatest fear is that Will will go through with his plan to travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide. He has promised his parents that he will stay alive for six months before he completes his plan. Lou's self-assigned task is to get him to decide to live.

This is no ordinary romance novel, because in an ordinary romance novel, Lou would have prevailed; Will would have repurposed his life; and all would have ended in sweetness and light. The conclusion would have left the reader with tears of joy; and I would not have been left with significant questions. 

Here are the moral dilemmas I struggled with as I read Me Before You.  Is Will selfish in the decisions he is making? Does a person have an obligation to live? Is choosing to die a person's moral right? I just finished reading Zero K by Don DeLillo, which is about cryogenics. I was already filled with questions about death and dying, although DeLillo's perspective is quite different from Moyes. 

The last 100 pages move very rapidly, and as soon as we begin to grasp the novel's conclusion, we become as confused as Lou. We continually ask ourselves about Will's quality of life. What is the best solution for him? Can he really change? Should he change? The reviewer in the New York Times suggests that the circumstances "lead noncontemplative people to contemplation." As I began the book, I really expected to finish the book, sigh, wipe my tears, and move on. I didn't expect to be haunted with the unanswerable questions that assail me now.

Moyes' writing style is subtle. The New York Times reviewer says that Moyes "disarms the reader with the normalcy of her voice. Her language is never lofty; she exposes her characters' flaws with the literary equivalent of a fluorescent bulb's naked light." The characters are all finely drawn; we have a clear vision of each one, which makes the impact of their decisions all the more profound.

 As I discussed the novel with my husband, he brought up the life of Stephen Hawking as an example of a person who made different life choices from Will Traynor.  And I remembered the biopic, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about the Elle editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was totally incapacitated by a stroke. The movie asks many of the same questions about quality of life that Me Before You is asking. A movie based on Moyes book comes out in the next couple of weeks. I am not sure that I have the spiritual energy to live through this twice.

This is my book club choice for the month. We meet next week. I am always curious about what my friends will think about the book.

Here is an interview with JoJo Moyes about the writing of Me Before You.

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