June Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

After You follows the story of Louisa Clarke as she copes with losing Will, battling with grief, loneliness, and a sense that she’s living a life that doesn’t feel like her own. After the tumultuous events of Me Before You, Jojo Moyes takes her readers on a journey through the aftermath of grief, weaving a great tale of love, loss, and healing.

In tone and subject matter, this sequel couldn’t be more different from the first instalment. One of the reasons I enjoyed Jojo’s first novel so much, was because it was so up-beat and light-hearted, despite the serious issues dealt with in its pages. With the arrival of the sequel, comes a notably darker quality, as the reader is plunged into Louisa’s grief-riddled life. It really is fantastically-written, and despite the sadness that almost saturates the narrative, there are still moments of humour which offer a kind of throw-back to the first novel.

Jojo really highlights the worst parts of experiencing grief. Louisa misses the purpose that Will gave her; she misses their daily routines and ends up feeling like she’s living someone else’s life. At the end of Me Before You, Will tells Louisa in his letter, Just live. It was a such a lovely sentiment, but in the sequel, Jojo actually tackles the reality of fulfilling his wish. How do you go on living after losing someone you love? What meaning does life carry? Louisa harbours a lot of anger, and ends up drifting. She travels. She returns to England. She sleeps with a couple of strangers. She ends up living in a flat and working at an airport, waiting to regain a sense of purpose. This is the ugly side of grief that no one tells you about. And if there’s anything Jojo’s good at, it’s making people talk about, and look at things head-on, because that’s the only way you can acknowledge the issue itself.

I also found it interesting that Louisa felt she had to move away from home because of the implications of Will’s decision to take his own life at Dignitas. The legal side of euthanasia isn’t always something we hear a lot about, but through the course of this novel, we discover that Camilla had to step down from her long-established career as a Judge, and even Bernard and Josie, Lou’s parents, suffered in their personal lives and stopped going out to avoid the gossip. I think it really speaks volumes about the implications of stirring idle chit-chat, the ripple effects, the way it ruins people’s lives. But the situation also means that Louisa is part of a minority, and this affords her a different kind of perspective of media. The news and the papers all have their own take on the events which led to Will’s passing, and it makes Louisa wonder what else the news stories don’t say – the hidden truths behind the articles. How many other people are judged wrongly like she’s been judged? Again, Jojo highlights an important issue about the way we invest in media; the way media sways us to one way of thinking and eliminates any room for subjectivity. The media objectifies individuals, turning them into stories – commodities – instead of humans with emotions and feelings and reasons for what they may have done or experienced.

The fact that Louisa moves to the city – to London – is very significant. The city grants her anonymity; allows her to make herself small. The city space is so vast, and yet so isolation and confining, unlike her village life back home in Stortford with its curtain-twitchers and gossips. Louisa is unable to share her real story – even at a circle for grief. She feels like a fraud and gives Will a fake name so that she at least has something to share with the rest of the circle. I don’t think it’s in any way a coincidence that Louisa is denied the right to grieve, because I think there’s a bigger message at play here. Society only hears what it wants to hear, and it’s symbolic that the only people who eventually listen to Louisa’s story, are the other people who are grieving in the circle. When she finally breaks down and tells them everything because she can’t carry the truth by herself anymore, their initial reaction is shock, but they’re also surprisingly supportive. This little circle of grieving individuals are marginalised from society because of their grief. In fact, it’s highlighted in the novel when they discuss how those around you seem to think it’s acceptable to grieve only for a certain amount of time before you’re expected to be better and get on with life. I think with the recent rise in conversation around mental health, Jojo highlights the need for more sensitivity when it comes to a person’s emotional state. Sometimes people cannot simply ‘be better’; sometimes healing takes time – takes set-backs and struggles, and even then they never get back to the person they were. Grief changes you.

Among the other bombshells that are dropped in this novel, I really enjoyed reading about Josie’s character arc. In the first book, she was the archetypal British mother-figure: never sitting still, doing all the housework, and never really taking any time for herself. Through the course of the novel, Will’s influence trickles down into her life too. The way he encouraged Lou to better herself gets Josie thinking, and she begins to nosy at Treena’s university texts. She discovers theories of sexism and feminism and female oppression and joins a poetry club. She stops shaving her legs and her armpits and refuses to do all the cooking and housework. It felt good to hear her rant during Grandad’s birthday party. It kind of felt like she was saying it on behalf of women everywhere. But despite the funny moments, I was also glad that it was kind of serious. Josie is just one example of how women often limit themselves in life, and when she begins to branch out and try to better herself, her husband feels threatened by that. Not for selfish reasons, but because he’s scared of losing her. He doesn’t want his wife to outgrow him and find that their relationship no longer means to her what it means to him. I think this, too, is a really important message. Female progression doesn’t equate to male regression. Just because a woman wants to improve herself academically or emotionally isn’t a threat to the men in her life; it simply means that she understands she deserves more in life and wants to reach her own potential. I’m so glad that Josie went through this in the novel, because I feel like it’s so important to tell women that they deserve whatever life they want, whether that’s to be a housewife, a career-driven individual, or even just someone who branches out and loves to learn in their spare time. Also, that’s it’s never too late to start.

The introduction of Will’s daughter was a jaw-drop-moment, and I have to admit that I found her very frustrating and wanted to yell at her a couple of times for taking advantage of Louisa and for smoking in the flat, but in the end, after discovering what she’d been through, I developed a kind of fondness for her.

I also hated Richard. I hated his new way of doing business – the corporate suit hired to tighten the reigns. The threat about having time off. Her no longer having the time (or the approval) to have a little banter with customers and chat with them over the bar. Too. Much. Pressure. Definitely says a lot about the strain of today’s workplace and corporate greed.

This book was a whole lot to take in. The emotion. The action. The horror. The relief. The heartbreak. I could go on. I was dubious that Jojo would be able to match the success of Me Before You, mostly because, how could she write another story without Will in it? But he was in it, just in a different way. He was imprinted upon the lives of the people he left behind, and his memory was everywhere, and that kind of made it okay. Sam and Lily and the Moving On Circle – they were all welcome additions to Louisa’s world, and even though the grief was heavy to read about, it was so worth it. This book was exactly the closure all Jojo’s readers needed; it was the perfect way to end Lou’s story, and it was also the perfect reminder that grief is manageable. Sometimes it might be unbearable, but it is manageable.

 

July Book Review: The 5th Wave series (including #2 The Infinite Sea and #3 The Last Star) by Rick Yancey

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