Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Jojo Moyes
978-0-525-426559-2, $32.50 hc
Jojo Moyes’s new novel, After You, is a sequel to her 2012 best seller, Me Before You, centring on Louisa Clark, a caregiver in her twenties, whose life is changed through knowing Will Traynor, a quadriplegic. New York Times book reviewer, Liesl Schellinger wrote of Me Before You: “When I finished this novel I didn’t want to review it, I wanted to reread it.” High praise indeed!
After You has many strengths, including an important theme and a compassionate, capable central character who follows her instincts in the face of unsolicited advice. Well structured, with much dramatic tension, After You can stand alone, independent of Me Before You. Significant information from the earlier novel is worked smoothly into the narrative in a way that maximizes suspense.
The theme of After You is the difficulty of moving on after bereavement. Louisa, who was in love with Will, feels that their brief time together should have taught her something that would enable her to live a full, creative, wonderful life as a memorial to him. Instead, she is just keeping her head above water. Others close to Will have moved on; for instance, his father has divorced, remarried and is about to become a father again.
Will has been dead only eighteen months when After You opens. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a soulmate knows that a year and a half is not enough time in which to “recover.” The circumstances of Will’s death (assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic) also contributed to Louisa’s slow recovery. Her love wasn’t enough to keep him alive, so she feels worthless. When her former boyfriend sold a story about her and Will to a tabloid, strangers criticized her for supporting Will in his decision for assisted suicide, which she did with great reluctance and only out of love for him.
In fact, Louisa seems on the cusp of healing when the novel opens. She has made some constructive efforts, which, though imperfect, show the will to live on. Using money Will left her, she has bought a London flat; she has also found a job at an East London airport bar. She has also joined a “Moving On” circle of bereaved people, where others’ stories are not particularly helpful but interesting. For example, teenaged Jake, whose mother died of cancer, confides that his dad is coping with his grief by “compulsive shagging.”
At night, on the roof garden of her apartment, after a bad day at work, Louisa is seized with grief. She glimpses a young face staring up at her, and then falls off the edge, escaping death thanks to a balcony awning and a bed lounger below. A kindly paramedic, Sam, talks her through the trip to hospital. Thus, by Page 11, Miss Moyes introduces three main characters in a way that captures reader attention.
The accident is the first in a series of events that force Louisa to confront the ghosts that haunt her. When sixteen year old Lily turns up at her door, claiming to be Will’s daughter and wanting to know all about him, Louisa is forced to assess the girl’s veracity and to play a parental role. Unwanted by her mother and stepfather, Lily finds everyone “closed off” in their “perfect little families” with no room for her.
After a meeting of the Moving On circle, Louisa runs into her rescuer, the paramedic, Sam, who has come to pick up Jake. He is charming but she is wary, assuming (incorrectly) that he is Jake’s father, the womanizer. Only later does she learn that he is Jake’s uncle, and brother of Jake’s mother. Eventually, over a drink, they talk about grief. Sam says that loss leaves a permanent hole in your life; you are a “doughnut” when you’d like to be a “bun.”
On Lily’s behalf, Louisa contacts with Lily’s selfish mother and Will’s well-meaning but surprised parents. When Louisa opens her home to the girl, Lily’s irresponsible behaviour leads her to consult her younger sister, Treena, for parenting advice. In fact, Treena is one of several negative secondary characters who seems totally unqualified to advise Louisa. In her mid-twenties and the single mother of an eight year old boy, Treena is still supported by her parents while she attends school, yet she periodically lectures Louisa for her lack of purpose and direction.
Eventually Louisa gets through to Lily by divulging the story of her own rape at age twenty when out partying with so-called friends. Will helped Louisa overcome that trauma, telling her: “You don’t have to let that one thing be the thing that defines you.”
On learning that Sam, the paramedic, is Jake’s uncle, not his father, Louisa gets involved with him. Spoiler Alert!!! Their romance progresses, but eventually he tells her that she is holding back, that she is in love with a ghost and just using him for sex. He doesn’t want to waste time on a relationship that isn’t going anywhere. To Louisa, “To commit to Sam was to commit to the likelihood of more loss”. In a somewhat over-the-top incident near the end, however, she saves his life and realizes that she has found a man who wants to stay alive for her.
The final scenes are well-executed; in Dickensian fashion, Miss Moyes ties up loose ends and indicates happy futures for several lesser characters. In Louisa’s case, however, the ending is open, and for me, problematic.
When I finished this novel I wanted to tell Louisa, “You’re making a big mistake”. She makes a career move that everyone considers necessary for her growth as a person, but the so-called dream job is just another caregiver position with no job security and in an unfamiliar environment. She does not acquire additional professional qualifications that point to a successful future. Also, by accepting the position, she puts on hold a hard-won emotional connection, thus risking its loss. She opts for change, which is not always progress.
A book club kit for the book can be found here: http://penguinecards.com/After-You-Book-Club-Kit.pdf
For information on Ruth Latta’s books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com