Title: Me Before You.
Author: Jojo Moyes.
Genre: Fiction, romance, chick-lit, caregiving, disability.
Publication Date: 2012.
Summary: Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has barely been farther afield than her tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex-Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair-bound and almost entirely paralyzed after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel, and he cannot reconcile himself to his new circumstances, growing acerbic and moody. But Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans on his own, Lou sets out to show him that life is still worth living. But perhaps he has much more to teach her about really living life than she could have predicted.
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ I watched relationships begin and end across those tables, children transferred between ex-spouses, the guilty relief of those parents who couldn't face cooking, and the secret pleasure of pensioners at a fried breakfast. All human life came through, and most of them shared a few words with me, trading jokes or comments over the mugs of steaming tea. Dad always said he never knew what was going to come out of my mouth next, but in the café it didn't matter.
♥ How could I explain to this man how much I wanted to work? Did he have the slightest idea how much I missed my old job? Unemployment had been a concept, something droningly referred to on the news in relation to shipyards or car factories. I had never considered that you might miss a job like you missed a limb—a constant, reflexive thing. I hadn't thought that as well as the obvious fears about money, and your future, losing your job would make you feel inadequate, and a bit useless. That it would be harder to get up in the morning than when you were rudely shocked into consciousness by the alarm. That you might miss the people you worked with, no matter how little you had in common with them. Or even that you might find yourself searching for familiar faces as you walked the high street.
♥ I had been a magistrate for almost eleven years. I watched the whole of human life come through my court: the hopeless waifs who couldn't get themselves together sufficiently even to make a court appointment on time; the repeat offenders; the angry, hard-faced young men and exhausted, debt-ridden mothers. It's quite hard to stay calm and understanding when you see the same faced, the same mistakes made again and again. I could sometimes hear the impatience in my tone. It could be oddly dispiriting, the blank refusal of humankind of even attempt to function responsibly.
And our little town, despite the beauty of the castle, our many Grade II listed buildings, our picturesque country lanes, was far from immune to it. Our Regency Squares held cider-drinking teenagers; our thatched cottages muffled the sounds of husbands beating their wives and children. Sometimes I felt like King Canute, making vain pronouncements in the face of a tide of chaos and creeping devastation. But I loved my job. I did it because I believe in order, in a moral code. I believe that there is a right and wrong, unfashionable as that view might be.
♥ They say you only really appreciate a garden once you reach a certain age, and I suppose there is a truth in that. It's probably something to do with the great circle of life. There seems to be something miraculous about seeing the relentless optimism of new growth after the bleakness of winter, a kind of joy in the difference every year, the way nature chooses to show off different parts of the garden to its full advantage. There have been times—the times when my marriage proved to be somewhat more populated than I had anticipated—when it has been a refuge, times when it has been a joy.
There have even been times when it was, frankly, a pain. There is nothing more disappointing than creating a new border only to see it fail to flourish, or to watch a row of beautiful alliums destroyed overnight by some slimy culprit. But even when I complained about the time, the effort involved in caring for it, the way my joints protested an afternoon spent weeding, or my fingernails never looking quite clean, I loved it. I loved the sensual pleasures of being outside, the smell of it, the feel of the earth under my fingers, the satisfaction of seeing things living, glowing, captivated by their own temporary beauty.
♥ It was that I could suddenly see no point. I paid a gardener to come and keep the garden tidy, and I don't think I have it anything but the most cursory of looks for the best part of the year.
It was only when we brought Will back home, once the annex was adapted and ready, that I could see a point in making it beautiful again. I needed to give my son something to look at. I needed to tell him, silently, that things might change, grow, or fail, but that life did go on. That we were all part of some great cycle, some pattern that it was only God's purpose to understand. I couldn't say that to him, of course—Will and I have never been able to say much to each other—but I wanted to show him. A silent promise, if you like, that there was a bigger picture, a brighter future.
♥ "I know my son."
"Yes. Our son." More my son, I found myself thinking. You were never really there for him. Not emotionally. You were just the absence he was always striving to impress.
♥ It's just that the thing you never understand about being a mother, until you are one, is that it is not the grown man—the galumphing, unshaven, stinking, opinionated offspring—you see before you, with his parking tickets and unpolished shoes and complicated love life. You see all the people he has ever been all rolled up into one.
♥ I lay back and I thought about Will. I thought about his anger and his sadness. I thought about what his mother had said—that I was one of the only people able to get through to him. I thought about him trying not to laugh at the "Molahonkey Song" on a night when the snow drifted gold past the window. I thought about the warm skin and soft hair and hands of someone living, someone who was far cleverer and funnier than I would ever be and who still couldn't see a better future than to obliterate himself. And finally, my head pressed into the pillow, I cried, because my life suddenly seemed so much darker and more complicated than I could ever have imagined, and I wished I could go back, back to when my biggest worry was whether Frank and I had ordered in enough Chelsea buns.
♥ And as I stared, I began to realize what I was taking on.
I would have to full those little white rectangles with a lifetime of things that could generate happiness, contentment, satisfaction, or pleasure. I would have to fill them with every good experience I could summon up for a man whose powerless arms and legs meant he could no longer make them happen by himself. I had just under four months' worth of printed rectangles to pack with days out, trips away, visitors, lunches, and concerts. I had to come up with all the practical ways to make them happen, and do enough research to make sure that they didn't fail.
And then I had to convince Will to actually do them.
I stared at my calendar, the pen stilled in my hand. This little patch of paper suddenly bore a whole heap of responsibility.
I had a hundred and seventeen days in which to convince Will Traynor that he had a reason to live.
♥ Some locals complained about the tourist season—the traffic jams, the overwhelmed public toilets, the demands for strange comestibles in the Buttered Bun café ("You don't do sushi? Not even hand roll?") But I didn't. I liked the breath of foreign air, the close-up glimpses of lives far removed from my own. I liked to hear the accents and work out where their owners came from, to study the clothes of people who had never seen a Next catalog or bought a five-pack of knickers at Marks and Spencer.
♥ "And the scarf."
My hands shot to my neck. "The scarf? Why?"
"It doesn't go. And you look like you're trying to hide something behind it."
"But I'm... well, I'm all cleavage otherwise."
"So?" He shrugged. "Look, Clark, if you're going to wear a dress like that you need to wear it with confidence. You need to fill it mentally as well as physically."
♥ The conductor stepped up, tapped twice on the rostrum, and a great hush descended. I felt the stillness, the auditorium alive, expectant. Then he brought down his baton and suddenly everything was pure sound. I felt the music like a physical thing; it didn't just sit in my ears, it flowed through me, around me, made my sense vibrate.
It made my skin prickle and my palms dampen. Will hadn't described any of it like this. I had thought I might be bored. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.
And it made my imagination do unexpected things; as I sat there, I found myself thinking of things I hadn't thought of for years, old emotions washing over me, new thoughts and ideas being pulled from me as if my perception itself were being stretched out of shape. It was almost too much, but I didn't want it to stop. I wanted to sit there forever. I stole a look at Will. He was rapt, suddenly unselfconscious. I turned away, unexpectedly afraid to look at him. I was afraid of what he might be feeling, the depth of his loss, the extent of his fears. Will Traynor's life had been so far beyond the experiences of mine. Who was I to tell him how he would want to live it?
♥ "I don't want to go in just yet. I just want to sit and not have to think about..." He swallowed.
Even in the half-dark it seemed effortful.
"I just... want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just for a few minutes more."
I released the door handle.
I closed my eyes and lay my head against the headrest, and we sat there together for a while longer, two people lost in remembered music, half hidden in the shadow of a castle on a moonlit hill.
♥ How could I explain to him—how a body can become so familiar to you? I could change Will's tubes with a deft professionalism, sponge-bathe his naked top half without a break in our conversation. I didn't even balk at Will's scars now. For a while, all I had been able to see was a potential suicide. Now he was just Will—maddening, mercurial, clever, funny Will—who patronized me and liked to play Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle. His body was just a part of the whole package, a thing to be dealt with, at intervals, before we got back to talking. It had become, I supposed, the least interesting part of him.
♥ "Perhaps I will go one day."
"Not 'perhaps.' You've got to get away from here, Clark. Promise me you won't spend the rest of your life stuck around this bloody parody of a place mat."
"Promise you? Why?" I tried to make my voice light. "Where are you going?"
"I just... can't bear the thought of you staying around here forever." He swallowed. "You're too bright. Too interesting." He looked away from me. "You only get one life. It's actually your duty to live it as fully as possible."
♥ "Why do women always have to go over a situation until it becomes a problem? I love you, you love me, we've been together nearly seven years, and there was no room at your parents' house anymore. It's actually pretty simple."
But it didn't feel simple.
It felt like I was living a life I hadn't had a chance to anticipate.
♥ The difference between growing up like me and growing up like Will was that he wore his sense of entitlement lightly. I think if you grow up as he had done, with wealthy parents, in a nice house, if you go to good schools and nice restaurants as a matter of course, you probably just have this sense that good things will fall into place, that your position in the world is naturally an elevated one.
♥ "And you know what? Nobody wants to hear that stuff. Nobody wants you to talk about being afraid, or in pain, or being scared of dying through some stupid, random infection. Nobody wants to know how it feels to know you will never have sex again, never eat food you've made with your own hands again, never hold your own child. Nobody wants to know that sometimes I feel so claustrophobic, being in this chair, I just want to scream like a madman at the thought of spending another day in it. Mt mother is hanging on by a thread and can't forgive me for still loving my father. My sister resents me for the fact that yet again I have overshadowed her—and because my injuries mean she can't properly hate me, like she has since we were children. My father just wants it all to go away. Ultimately, they want to look on the bright side. They need me to look on the bright side."
He paused. "They need to believe there is a bright side."
♥ It was a sweet thing for her to say, as I knew that, in some respects, she might legitimately have hoped for an end to it all. It was Will's accident that had curtailed our plans for a life together, after all. She must have secretly hoped that my responsibilities toward Will would one day end so that I could be free.
And I walked along beside her, feeling her hand resting in the crook of my arm, listening to her singsong voice. I couldn't tell her the truth—the truth that just a handful of us knew. That if the girl failed with her ranches and her bungee jumping and hot tubs and what have you, she would paradoxically be setting me free. Because the only way I would ever be able to leave my family was if Will decided, after all, that he was still determined to go to this infernal place in Switzerland.
I knew it, and Camilla knew it. Even if neither of us would admit it to ourselves. Only on my son's death wold I be free to live the life of my choosing.
"Don't," she said, catching my expression.
Dear Della. She could tell what I was thinking, even when I didn't know myself.
"It's good news, Steven. Really. You never know, this might be the start of a whole new independent life for Will."
I placed my hand over hers. A braver man might have told her what I really thought. A braver man would have let her go long ago—her, and maybe even my wife, too.
♥ "No. I want him to live."
"But I want him to live if he wants to live. If he doesn't, then by forcing him to carry on, you, me—no matter how much we love him—we become just another shitty bunch of people taking away his choices."
♥ "It's not enough for me. This—my world—even with you in it. And believe me, Clark, my whole life has changed for the better since you came. But it's not enough for me. It's not the life I want."
Not it was my turn to pull away.
"The thing is, I get that this could be a good life. I get that with you around, perhaps it could even be a very good life. But it's not my life. I am not the same as these people you speak to. It's nothing like the life I want. Not even close." His voice was halting, broken. His expression frightened me.
I swallowed, shaking my head. "You... you once told me that the night in the maze didn't have to be the thing that defined me. You said I could choose what it was that defined me. Well, you don't have to let that... that chair define you."
"But it does define me, Clark. You don't know me, not really. You never saw me before this thing. I loved my life, Clark. Really loved it. I loved my job, my travels, the things I was. I loved being a physical person. I liked crushing people in business deals. I liked having sex. Lots of sex. I led a big life." His voice had lifted now. "I am not designed to exist in this thing—and yet for all intents and purposes it is now the thing that defines me. It is the only thing that defines me."
"But you're not even giving it a chance," I whispered. My voice didn't seem to want to emerge from my chest. "You're not giving me a chance."
"It's not a matter of giving you a chance. I've watched you these six months becoming a whole different person, someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me. I don't want you to be tied to me, to my hospital appointments, to the restrictions on my life. I don't want you to miss out on all the things someone else could give you. And, selfishly, I don't want yo8u to look at me one day and feel even the tiniest bit of regret or pity that—"
"I would never think that!"
"You don't know that, Clark. You have no idea how this would play out. You have no idea how you're going to feel even six months from now. And I don't want to look at you every day, to see you naked, to watch you wandering around the annex in your crazy dresses and not... not be able to do what I want with you. Oh, Clark, if you had any idea what I want to do you right now. And I... I can't live with that knowledge. I can't. It's not who I am. I can't be the kind of man who just... accepts."
He glanced down at his chair, his voice breaking. "I will never accept this."
♥ I watched my sister as we walked, seeing her brown back exposed by her halter-top, her stooped shoulders, and I realized that even if she didn't know it yet, everything had changed for her. She wouldn't stay here now, no mater what happened to Will Traynor. She had an air about her, a new air of knowledge, of things seen, places she had been. My sister finally had new horizons.
♥ "I missed you."
He seemed to relax then. "Come over here." And then, when I hesitated. "Please. Come on. Right here, on the bed. Right next to me."
I realized then that there was actual relief in his expression. That he was pleased to see me in a way he wasn't actually going to be able to say. And I told myself that it was going to have to be enough. I would do the thing he had asked for. That would have to be enough.
♥ So I held him, Will Traynor, ex-financial whiz kid, ex-stunt diver, sportsman, traveler, lover. I held him close and said nothing, all the while telling him silently that he was loved. Oh, but he was loved.
♥ I'm not giving the money to you because I want you to feel wistful, or indebted to me, or to feel that it's some kind of bloody memorial.
I'm giving you this because there is not much that makes me happy anymore, but you do.
I am conscious that knowing me has caused you pain, and grief, and I hope that one day when you are less angry with me and less upset you will see not just that I could only have done that thing that I did, but also that this will help you live a really good life, a better life, than if you hadn't met me.
You're going to feel uncomfortable in your new world for a bit. It always does feel strange to be knocked out of your comfort zone. But I hope you feel a bit exhilarated too. Your face when you came back from diving that time told me everything; there is a hunger in you, Clark. A fearlessness. You just buried it, like most people do.
I'm not really telling you to jump off tall buildings, or swim with whales or anything (although I would secretly love to think you were), but to live boldly. Push yourself. Don't settle. Wear those stripy legs with pride. And if you insist on settling down with some ridiculous bloke, make sure some of this is squirrelled away somewhere. Knowing you still have possibilities is a luxury. Knowing I might have given them to you has alleviated something for me.
So this is it. You are scored on my heart, Clark. You were from the first day you walked in, with your ridiculous clothes and your bad jokes and your complete inability to hide a single thing you felt. You changed my life so much more than this money will ever change yours.
Don't think of me too often. I don't want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well.