“If it all goes wrong, and I’m a heart without a home, maybe you can talk me out …
of doing myself in.”
Chris Cornell, “Worried Moon”
(This is for the novel, and spoilers follow)
Louisa Clark, 27 years old, able-bodied but immature in the mind, decides this will be her mission while tending to Will Traynor: to keep him from dying. More bluntly, to talk him out of killing himself. Will, a once-successful and proud British man, is in a wheelchair; a C5-6 quadriplegic after a street accident one morning in 2007. Two years later, and he is dead set on finding peace in a place in Switzerland, where he can comfortably end his life.
There is no one who can change his mind, not even his parents. His previous failed attempt at suicide will not deter him. Will is not used to failing, after all. In his previous life, he brokered deals with businesses and made lots of money. He hiked mountains and traveled to China. If you wanted the best coffee and croissant in Paris, Will knew the perfect cafe to take you. He had a girlfriend, Alicia, a slender, blonde material girl with whom he was happy. They were young and beautiful. Maybe his Blackberry interfered with their romantic life more than she would have liked, but this was a minor inconvenience, years before any true resentment would emerge from the both of them. As he puts it at one point, he loved his life. He liked being active, he liked having sex (lots of sex).
Go big or go home? Will Traynor never took the latter. He always went big.
His mother Camilla is a judge, a no-nonsense woman with a busy schedule, which doesn’t serve her well because of her utter fear Will is going to try and comitt suicide again. Father Steven is around even less, gallivanting with his mistress Della. He would separate from Camilla if Will ever did pass. Their daughter Georgina comes and goes, only entering the story to shred Will to pieces for whatever pent up rage she’s holding onto. She has an inferiority complex that has only worsened since Will was wrecked. She loved spiting him, and now that Will is in a position where she can’t say anything in light of being a terrible person, she hates him ever more. Steven doesn’t seem to care about family drama, or much at all. He loves Will, but he treats him as a pal, a buddy. The Traynors have Nathan as a caretaker, an experienced man with the right temperament to endure Will’s sass, and Camilla is the one who ages every five minutes fretting about the future of their son — her son. She looks at Steven with either contempt or a face of stone whenever they are in the same room. Their marriage is basically over. Will is the only thing holding the family together.
At first, Louisa doesn’t want to do it. To save Will, or even meet Will. Our main narrator just lost her job at a cafe, a safe place of work with familiar faces and little surprises, and that suited Lou just fine. She came home every night to a cramped house: a mother, a father who likes to crack wise ( because what else would keep you sane when you might lost your job every day of your life?) There’s also a grandfather who moved in after suffering a stroke. He is mostly an afterthought, a needless character in a story already crammed full of people with enough inter-tangled problems to justify it’s 364-page paperback length.
Lou has a love-hate relationship with her sister, Katrina, the smarter sibling when it comes to academics, but also the one with a small child and no father, so maybe she’s more irresponsible, if not dumber, when it comes to life choices.
Lou’s life choices are quirky. She wears colorful clothing: skirts, tights and tops with weird patterns, and equally peculiar shoes to accent her dress wear. We learn later her carefree attitude and style came after being taken advantage of by her friends one drunken night in a maze. Katrina came and saved her. After that, goodbye conventionality! She would not be tied down anything and anyone that could make her feel small, or different, or bad. She is off in her own world, which is maddening to others around her, not that she cares.
Lou is not an explorer. She is not adventurous. She misses her quaint cafe job. But a new world beckons.
Will meets Lou and instantly despises her. Lou doesn’t know anything about care-taking, but that’s not really her job. Camilla wants Lou to be more of a friend. But Will is a jerk, entitled and insufferable. He used to be handsome, but sleep deprivation and the burden of being in a wheel chair at 35 will turn your heart ugly and your exterior unfamiliar. Later though, his self-assured nature and sardonic wit make the relationship between he and Lou eminently more enjoyable than if he was painted as a feeble, likable bloke from the get-go. But then, you wouldn’t have a story that way. Will needs to be the kind of guy you wanted to punch in the face before the accident so he can be rehabilitated. Emotionally, that is.
It’s a little convenient; Author Jojo Moyes has the story driven by plot, from job-displacement, to a wedding announcement all the way to a well-timed sickness. Like Will, it feels like the rest of the characters have no control over their lives either. Ironically, Will is the one who ends up dictating everyone’s actions, either by the whims of his mood or the breakdown of his health.
So while Lou fails at the whole friend thing at first, she busies herself around the Traynor mansion: dishes, laundry, dusting, anything she can do to keep from running off the property, entirely intimidated from Will’s presence.
Lou presents herself as childlike, but readers should have no problem rooting for her during the first half of the story. Later, though, we have less sympathy. In what becomes an increasingly destructive web, we constantly get scenes with her boyfriend Patrick, who is obsessed with working out, and is training for a triathlon. Increasingly, the Lou paints him in an unsympathetic light, and Patrick doesn’t deserve it. He may not give Lou the attention she craves, but he does love her, and he’s harmless. It’s obvious this is not he person she should ever settle down with, but there is no real fault to Pat.
Alicia is marrying Will’s old friend Rupert. After a breakdown, Will opens up. Lou begins to carve through his rough exterior. He goes to Lou’s house for her birthday, and Patrick is there. He is portrayed as the antagonist in this scene, event though it is Will who is in now in foreign territory. But Me Before You desperately wants you to root for Lou and Will, so Pat is the jerk who never saw it coming. Okay then.
Will presents Lou with a pair of black and yellow tights, which she is over the moon about. It fits her personality, considering how busy she is at the Traynor’s: she’s like a bee. This character detail is further pushed upon us when Lou begins to research online how to make Will want to keep living. Her message board username is Busy Bee.
Bees can be annoying. Is Lou? As the story furthers, she becomes more so, because as she takes on this cause — she has six months to create enough of an incentive for Will to rethink his decision, to see the wonders life has to offer still for someone in his position — it becomes personal. She becomes selfish. Will asks what she wants out of life, and she has no response. Eventually, this burden of being a savior is is what she wants. Admittedly, she was reluctant accept Camilla’s challenge (and Camilla takes blame here, because she acts as Princess Leia to Lous’s Obi Wan: “You’re our only hope!”). But after creating her calendar of potential life-saving activities, Lou reinforces within herself the idea that it’s all on her. Her family won’t understand, so she won’t tell them, save for Katrina.
Horse racing day fails. Will hates horses because the animals act as a wheelchair of sorts for the jockeys, and Will is a doer. He wants to use his legs and his entire body for activities. He’d rather not play the ponies all day.
Louisa shaves Will one day in the bathroom, her face eventually closing in to within inches of his. It’s only when you really study someone’s face up close do begin to feel intimate, and feelings blossom. So here those feelings are, available for Louisa the Busy Bee, to land and take them. Screw Patrick, the one Will calls “Running Man.” No, Lou wants Wheelchair Man.
Their love blooms at a classical music concert, and again at Alicia’s wedding. Against all sanity, against all things reasonable in life, Will attends his ex’s wedding, because he’s just that brash, his ego and arrogance coming out of him, having been buried after the accident. Lou dances with him, sitting on his lap as the chair turns on the dance floor. Alicia and Rupert are appalled, and rightfully so, but then, maybe don’t invite Will to the wedding in the first place, right?
This all wonderful for Lou, but Will has a death wish, and Lou is naive enough to think that a huge vacation can still change things, because naivety is in her nature. She’s 12 trapped in a 27-year-old’s body. Will should realize this — he’s smart, of course he does — and should end things here if he knew what was good for Lou’s emotional state. It’s irresponsible for him to allow this girl to keep seeing him.
Then again, this is part of plan.
Will gets sick. Really sick (not part of his plan, but hold on). Then he gets better and he and Lou whisk away with caretaker Nathan to Mauritius, a tiny island just east of Madagascar. It’s paradise, and you think this might be some sort of sideways universe Moyes created, and maybe Will’s dead, or everyone is in Heaven, because it’s too good to be true. At night, with the stormy sea just miles from them in their room, they get more intimate, holding hands and lying next to each other until Will falls asleep. The final day, after drinking (and it’s never a good thing when Lou is drunk, you know) she confesses she knows what Will wants to do, and that she loves him. They kiss, and he likes it, but it’s not enough. It will never be enough for him. She doesn’t understand that. We’ll make it work, she says. But Will is smarter, older, wiser, and even more determined than her. He’s going to die in Switzerland. This was simply a nice respite.
Will knows what’s it’s like to truly live, and Lou doesn’t. Will knows that he’ll never be happy traveling to places with her because the beauty in Parisian landscapes and island life will never hold enough for him. He’s been there — to all of it, and as a shell of his former self, he cannot bear to let the world see him for what he’s become. Pride let him shine in his former life. It has destroyed him in his new one. At least he danced with a pretty girl at his ex’s wedding. That had to feel good — one more chance to show someone up.
The book switches perspective from time to time. Camilla, Nathan, Steven and Katrina all get chapters which outline Lou in various ways she can’t see herself. This technique isn’t effective, though, save for Camilla’s chapter. She’s the only other character interesting enough to carry pages. Shes’s a present and dominant figure, and it feels like she takes up more pages in the book than she actually does. That’s a good thing. Camilla Traynor is a caring mother, someone to root for, not as heartless or mean as Lou tries to define her.
Will eventually becomes the thing that defines Lou. Is that okay? She’s not even 30, and people are still growing at her age. It took accepting this seemingly wretched job for her to blossom. Will’s life, as he knew it, ended the moment he was hit, so he now acts as a sort of vessel for Lou to grow and experience what life can have in store for her. Will constantly pushed Lou to seek out adventures beyond their small town. All this time, as she took Will to the racing track, to the wedding, and to the island, it was really for her own good, not Will. He knew this. He was done, but he knew she was just getting started. It was her before him.
It doesn’t make the goodbye any harder. Lou managed to peel Will’s rough exterior away. She was the only on who could such a thing. For that, the Traynors owe her a huge debt, even if Will is not going to be here anymore.
And he’s not. And it’s months later, and Lou is in a Paris cafe with a letter, from Will. It only took the twisted act of falling in love with a quadriplegic to expand her horizon. But it’s okay, because in the end Will didn’t mind being used. His final written words to her are to keep going, to keep living. So she will.