Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.
What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.
Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.
What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.
4.25 stars, rounded to 4.
*This review will contain spoilers throughout*
Over the past three weeks, I have had so many people tell me to READ THIS BOOK. NOW. I owned it. It had been sat on the back of my self for a couple of months after acquiring it for 50p in a charity shop. Yet it wasn’t until I watched the film trailer that I had a desperate urge to go ahead and actually read it. I am so glad I listened to all of you telling me I had to read it, as it has had me thinking, and has actually made me rather emotional. The romance tag attributed to it certainly does not do it enough justice: it is so much more than that, so much so that I am tentative in even classifying it as romance, as that just is not what I got from this book. What I got from this book was a heart-wrenching story about the different arguments regarding the right to die, and a perceptive look into some identifiable emotions of life that stick with you long after you turn the last page.
The novel follows Lou Clark, a carer to quadriplegic Will Traynor, who is struggling to look past the fact that he will no longer be able to live the adventurous life he had done before a motorcycle accident left him wheelchair-bound. This book is usually referred to as a romance, which is one of the things that deterred me from picking it up sooner – you know my hatred for romance novels! One thing I want to say about this novel from the off is that it didn’t feel like a romance to me. Yes, we are dealing with love, both familial and romantic, yet romance is by no means the central piece in this story. The main story – for me – was always about the emotional struggles of no longer being able to live the life you previously had. For over three quarters of the book, there was no burning romantic interaction between Will and Lou. There were hints, undertones, but nothing directly addressed, instead dealing with Will’s psychology regarding his condition and his mental health, and Lou’s regarding her approach to Will as a carer, as well as the other dysfunctional aspects of her life. The focus was firmly rooted in the idea that life is what you make of it, whilst exploring the characters’ differing mentalities, and of course the huge topic of the right to die. I liked it that way. I did lose my enthusiasm in the final 100 pages of the novel, when Lou begins to express her romantic feelings for Will. Firstly, while it was obvious they would have feelings for each other given the book’s branding of romance, the romance aspect had been so subtly underplayed for the majority of the book, that when Lou comes out with declarations of love, it feels a little forced. It would have been much better (and more emotional) had Lou only expressed her romantic thoughts for Will after he had died, as the notion that they were friends who could have been more but never would be holds far more power without Lou’s declaration. To shove this romance on him as a last-minute attempt to prevent him from taking his own life felt a little cruel, and a bit like Moyes wanted to gear up the emotion even more before his death. The tone felt rather different in the last portion of the novel, and I’m not completely sure that it was necessary.
Quite a lot of the success of this story comes from the relatability with aspects of the characters. Lou herself is – on the whole – a very likeable character to read about. She is quirky, funny and compassionate, and while she is having a tough time of life, she gets on with it. I pitied Lou for most of the book. She is undervalued in a family who treat her like dirt (more on that later) and she is just trying to get enough money to get by. She has no true aspiration – something that I think is very relatable. I’ve seen people comment on how this is stupid of a 26-year-old, but if you ask me, so many people at different stages of their lives simply do not have the ambition to go skydiving or see the world, as Will did. On that level, Lou is far more relatable to me – not a risk-taker, not a dreamer, just someone who wants to get by in life. At moments, I could see a little of myself in her. For the most part, I was a big fan of her. That is, until the very end of the novel, when Will makes his decision about his assisted suicide. Lou suddenly became overly selfish, stopped thinking about Will’s own mental state and free will and was far too keen to prioritise what she thinks is best over what Will wished for. In the home stretch of the novel, as the plot shifted more towards a last-ditch romance, Lou began to show signs of morphing into a romantic-heroine-style character and lost her earlier personality at the expense of becoming a whining girl making declarations of love. This disappointed me a little bit, as she had been characterised so well up until this point. Regarding Will, I thought that his characterisation was very powerful. We get to see his inner turmoil over his condition; ironically, he is happier in those final six months than he had been before, but it was not enough to overrule his underlying feelings towards his paralysis. He has his fair share of humour, sincerity, emotion and stoicity, and Moyes does a great job of making the reader sympathetic to his struggles. Nathan was another character I enjoyed reading about. He added humour and a nice friendship dynamic. In fact, of all the characters, there was only one I could not tolerate: Lou’s sister Treena. Treena is horrid. Her self-righteous attitude, her unreasonable strop over the bedroom situation, and her superiority complex due to her being ‘more intelligent’ served to make her a painful character to read about. I hated that Lou always came to the ultimate conclusion that her sister was right, and bowed down to her ‘superior knowledge’, when all I could see is an extremely selfish hypocritical woman who bullies Lou into putting family first, whilst simultaneously not giving a care in the world to said family herself. The scene where Lou calls Treena out and criticises her attitude, stating that maybe she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant and ruined her life, I internally cheered so loud, until Lou instantly began saying how none of it was true and Treena was a great sister… Cue exasperated sigh. When we had a section from Treena’s voice, and I read the line “I am the one in the family who knows everything…. I should have all the answers… but I don’t,” I got so angry. Apart from supposedly being a ‘source of support’ for Lou (of which she does very little) I do not see Treena’s purpose in this novel.
Talking of narrative voices, I did like that we occasionally had chapters from different perspectives. We had the voice of Nathan, Treena, Stephen and Camilla, which provided a nice break away from Lou, and in the case of Camilla and Stephen, Will’s parents, allowed more depth to their story of having to accept Will’s decision. I liked the extent to which Moyes explores the parents’ roles in Will’s suicide, and this narrative device allowed for a lot more sympathy towards Camilla, as well as explaining Stephen’s affair (on that topic, I would have preferred it if it had started after Will’s accident as a way of distancing himself from the pain, rather than being an already ongoing thing – it would have been a stronger impact in terms of the effect disabilities have on relatives). While I liked the changes of view, however, Nathan’s and Treena’s especially did little for the story, and even Stephen’s probably could’ve been omitted. Another interesting (and perhaps more relevant) narrative device was the use of the chatrooms. I wish we had seen a little more of this feature, as it allowed Moyes to integrate in cases of other sufferers of paralysis and varying approaches to life with a disability – not all are as disheartened as Will, which added a more positive note.
One thing I adored about the novel was the relationship between Lou and Patrick. There is no true love there, just familiarity, and I felt that it was actually far more real than most of these idealised romantic relationships in fiction. What we saw was a couple who had been together for seven years, and Lou at least knows that deep down there is no true love for Patrick, yet she stays for the sense of security, the known entity. As sad and frustrating as it is, especially as you continue to see Lou distancing herself from Patrick, and him overlooking her needs (evoking pity for both of them from me), it felt far more realistic in my eyes than Will and Lou did at the end (as much as I wanted to love them: especially with Will’s admittance that he never would have looked at her had he not been paralysed) and in fact more realistic than most romances I’ve read about recently. Relationships are not always ideal, and I was pained yet glad to see Lou and Patrick’s in this novel; failing romances are often overlooked in romantic fiction in favour of unrealistic perfect ones, yet this one is gritty and honest.
There were a couple of things that grated on me a bit. I knew before reading this that Moyes wanted the class divide between Will and Lou to be prominent in the book, and she achieves that. The class ideas are exaggerated until we have a set of stereotypes. In the case of Will and his family, this felt effective to me. We have the rich family running the castle, throwing money away like water and having experiences others could only dream of. It was the portrayal of the working class Clark family which bothered me a tad. Their situation felt more relatable to me than the Traynors’ did; I’m a working class girl, and money is a worry. It started off all rather relatable. Yet when Lou began to make offhand comments about ‘families like hers’ all having ASBOs and parole conditions, I began to be a bit less enthused and more disappointed about the stereotypes of class Moyes was using. Another issue I had was the length of the novel, especially given the predictability of the plot. It wasn’t an issue that the outcome of the book is evident from quite early in. What does become a problem is that the book is unnecessarily extended at points in order to make it seem like the inevitable might not happen, yet I had no doubt it would. All the endless adventures and repetition of the monotonous routine do drag after a while.
You cannot discuss this book without talking about the ending. Yes, it was predictable. Did that make it any less emotional? I do not think so. I am in two minds about the ending. Yes, it was emotive, tragic and brutally honest. That in itself was satisfying. I do think that it is important that the novel did not end with a miraculous recovery, or Will unbelievably forgetting all his issues to decide that he could live happily with Lou. That would have felt insincere, and even mocked the depth of his mental dilemma earlier on. The inevitable death is executed well, with the court document and Will’s letter much stronger ways of handling it than simply narrating his death. At the same time, the end did feel somewhat unsatisfying. We spent so long with Lou attempting to change his mind that when she doesn’t, it feels like a bit of a waste of time. I can’t decide whether I like that or not. Obviously it is the intention, and as I said, I wouldn’t want her to have changed his mind, but ultimately I’m not 100% invested in the ending as it all feels far too futile for my tastes, especially given the earlier theme of living life to the full – obviously Will leaves that to Lou, but I do not think she truly embodies that sentiment in the epilogue. Rather than trying new things, she is crying over him in a cafe. It feels a little underwhelming.
Had this book rounded off around about the pneumonia scene (obviously properly concluded) then I probably would’ve given this 5 stars. I was truly invested in it up until Lou’s holiday plans. While this novel is very strong, there were these tiny little bits and pieces, and an ending which I’m uncertain about, that cumulatively prevented me giving it the full 5 star rating. Nonetheless, I do think this is a very good book, and one that I would be eager to recommend. Saying that, I feel like the book does not need the sequel, ‘After You’, which has been published, and I am hesitant to read it, given that I do not believe this book was in need of being taken further – it should have been left as it was.