I first discovered Will and Lou’s story from watching the 2016 blockbuster starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. I feel like this is often a source of resentment among fans of any book which has been given an adaptation on the big screen, but given that I probably wouldn’t have read the book if it hadn’t been for the film, I would say that’s a pretty narrow view of the situation.
This story has a big and unapologetic heart which works well in both mediums. Most of all, I enjoyed that it felt like a real story instead of a pretentious one, as romance novels sadly often do (though that’s in no way a detrimental thing, apparently, since I watch them all the time).
Me Before You follows the story of Louisa Clarke, an eccentric, optimistic young woman, as she struggles with unemployment, living in a pretty crowded home with her family, and a secret from her past that she’s carried for too long. When a local caring position crops up, she decides to try her hand at it, only to thrust herself into a situation she could never have foreseen. Lou’s life becomes a whirlwind of emotions, deep sadness, controversy, but most importantly, love.
First off, I like that the Will’s quadriplegia is dealt with in a no-frills kind of way. Shameless jokes, hard truths, and seriously near-the-bone jokes act as a kind of icebreaker into Will’s disability, and I think that might be a contributing factor to the book’s obvious success. Jojo doesn’t tiptoe around the issue, instead she just shoves it in our faces, saying simply: he’s a quad. There is a funny side if you allow there to be one. Deal with it. Will is so self-deprecating and sarcastic about his own situation that, after the first initial discomfort, the jokes just become sort of natural. It’s really refreshing because this is a much-needed step towards deconstructing the stigma around disability, and humour is clearly the best way to get that conversation started.
While this novel is so clearly about acceptance and love and human resilience, it’s also about the much simpler things in life that we all experience at one time or another. Louisa has grown up on a council estate, like many British people do, and with that comes the inevitable hardships of low incomes and unemployment. Me Before You reflects on the wider impacts of a recession, which is certainly relevant since we’re still seeing its effects in today’s economy.
Both Lou and her dad go through a period of unemployment in the book, and for each of them, it’s degrading – even depressing. For the young generation that Lou represents, it’s hard because of a lack of skills and experience, and for the mature generations, it’s hard because, in Lou’s dad’s case, he’s only ever had one job and he’s much older in a society that’s often looking for fresh, young minds. It’s all very ironic – Lou can’t get a job because she has little experience, and her dad can’t get a job because he’s got too much experience. It certainly emulates the vicious circle of job hunting that I’ve experienced.
More than anything, I found Treena’s love of learning to be one of the things I connected with the most. At one point, she admits: ‘I’m really desperate to use my brain again. Doing the flowers is doing my head in. I want to learn. I want to improve myself.’ Throughout the novel, the two sisters battle with their torn loyalty to their family, themselves, and each other. They both feel that they have a certain responsibility to contribute to the family’s living costs, but there’s also a kind of understanding that one of them could – and should – go and spread their wings while the other stays home and does their bit to help the family. I found this really interesting because that’s actually really true. In England, it often works out that one sibling moves away and flourishes while the other stays home and settles for a quiet life close to the family home. I’ve never really considered it before, but Jojo highlights a pretty important aspect of life here. While it’s important to look after family and help out where you can, there shouldn’t be any kind of barrier to young people going off to better themselves in the big wide world. And there shouldn’t be this stigma that there’s only room for one of the children to grow away from the family. Treena, much like me, loves learning, and knows exactly what she needs to do with her life for it to be a fulfilling one – both for her and for Thomas. But it takes Lou a little longer to realise this, and I guess that’s another important message to take away from the book. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to figure out what you want or what you need to do with your life, just as long as you don’t give up. This story is really about the real ups and downs of family life. Two sisters falling out over who should have the bigger room and who should stay at home to help mum and dad pay the bills. Two sisters sharing sisterly moments and secrets they don’t feel they can burden their parents with. Real life.
When it comes to Will and Lou’s relationship, I think it’s an important distinction that they both challenge one another equally. The book highlights the reality that, in society, people often assume that physical disability involves mental disability, and this is one of the things that Will resents more than anything because it leads everyone around him to think they know what’s best for him. So, when Lou accepts that this, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth, that’s when she begins to find it much easier to work with him. From that point onwards, they develop a natural respect for one another, and are able to interact on an equal footing intellectually. Will challenges her to broaden her horizons, encouraging her to read newspapers and books she would never have read before, to watch films with subtitles and start questioning what her future could hold instead of merely settling for what she already has. And in return, Lou challenges him to live again – to go out and do things. Essentially, to give life another chance. And I think it works for them both. Even if just for a short space of time. In fact, Louisa grows so much (in a metaphorical sense), that she literally outgrows her box room, and cannot stand the thought of moving back into it once she’s moved into Treena’s room because it makes her feel so claustrophobic.
Many current and incredibly relevant topics surface throughout the novel – from the threat of Lou’s dad’s redundancy, to the transformation of the library to include more technology than books. From working with Will, she begins to notice just how inaccessible our world is for wheelchair users, and how insensitive people are when it comes to disabled individuals. But she also gets to see just how much people are not alone because of technology and because of disabilities when she discovers the online community of quadriplegics. She comes across so many differing opinions about euthanasia – all of them passionate – and begins to realise the sheer scale of this debate in modern society. As her time with Will increases, and her understanding of his situation begins to grow, it becomes more about seeing past her own views of potential suicide as being wrong, and more about understanding, for Will’s sake, what his life if like and how she might be able to help improve it. I think it’s ironic that despite all the things she organises for Will to try and change his mind, in the end, the one thing that works the best, is, quite simply, her company. Despite all the other things she organised for him – the horse racing, the orchestra, the holiday – the one thing that improves his quality of life, even just for a little while, is the fact that Louisa spends time with him. I can’t help seeing that as a vital message for readers to take away from this book. Despite the fact that we might not understand someone’s disability, that it might even scare us, and that we might be afraid of offending or appearing to pity them, the one thing we can do to help is to give our time to people like Will. To listen to the individual’s voice instead of the disability.
But just as Will and his family have their own demons to battle, Louisa, too, has a secret she has to face head-on. I found it quite upsetting to read what happened to Louisa all those years before, but it did make a lot of things drop into place when the big reveal finally came. Through Lou’s character, Jojo explores the effects of rape, and the way that, in Lou’s case, it makes victims retreat into themselves, to make themselves small and insignificant. Lou stopped being extravagant and confident and started covering herself up, blaming herself for encouraging the attention of the men in the first place. She stopped believing in herself, and limited herself to the small borders of her town, not bothering to stretch her horizons and plan a future for herself. Instead, she made herself small, and importantly, only harmed herself more in the process.
I like that we get to see the situation from different perspectives throughout the book, since Jojo gives us a handful of chapters from different characters. Camilla. Steven. Nathan. Towards the end of the book, I think it was much more effective for readers to experience Lou’s grief through Treena’s eyes, since it represents the way Lou becomes closed-off (quite literally closed-off from the reader), because grief is a very private, very isolating experience. Jojo has constructed a very careful, very thoughtful narrative, and one that I really enjoyed reading.
I think Jojo deals with a lot in this novel. A lot of things that need saying and need to be discussed, but aren’t always easy to say out loud. And she threads them deeply into the narrative in a way that combines comedic value with hope and despair and grief and laughter. It’s a very difficult thing to achieve, but Jojo nails it absolutely, and gives us something to read as well as allowing us to take away a lot of very important things. An absolute must read.
June Book Review: The 5th Wave Trilogy by Rick Yancey