Reviewed by Laura Marriott
“Don’t think of me too often … Just live well. Just live. Love, Will”
After You is the sequel to the much loved international best seller Me Before You by prolific writer Jojo Moyes. Me Before You bought us the unlikely but beautifully portrayed romance between Will and Louisa. Will was a man who lived life to the full before becoming determined to die after a road traffic accident that left him quadriplegic but Louisa, his carer, set out to change this. She was the sparky, bright young woman who somehow found herself trapped by her life, her family and past. The two were bought together and Louisa learnt to live and enjoy life again before Will’s passing. How has Louisa fared since Me Before You’s emotionally devastating ending?
This is Moyes first sequel. She has chosen to revisit the character of Louisa and as a reader one is slightly nervous at revisiting such a well-loved character. However, this is a fear that is not realised. We meet Louisa eighteen months later. She has relocated to London after having broken away from her family and the small town gossips of her home town. She works in an airport bar before going home to an east London flat that never feels like her own. Her family and her desire to live every moment of life to the full are conspicuously missing until one night that changes her life. A stranger turns up on her doorstep and she has a choice, close the door and live a safe, ordered but unfulfilling life, or open it and risk everything.
In the first few chapters we see Louisa struggling with the legacy Will left her, the burden of trying to live life to the full whilst still grieving. When she suffers a dramatic fall, her family, who have been estranged since Will’s death, come back into her life along with a new set of characters, Paramedic Sam and teenager Lily, who reinvigorate Louisa’s life and ambitions. One of the themes that ran through Me Before You and continues in After You is that to live life is also to be vulnerable, to be open to pain and struggle but to embrace it any way to find happiness and love. Moyes digs into the messy reality of grieving and trying to establish a new life when your old one has been rocked from its foundations. It would perhaps have been easier to leave Louisa at the end of Me Before You with all of life’s opportunities in front of her rather than portraying grief and the difficulty of living under the pressure of expectation: trying to make the deceased Will proud.
Moyes manages to tackle the big issues through character driven narrative, leading the reader through ideas and places they may never have thought of before. The strong characters, well defined and recognisable, lie at the heart of her success. It would have been easy to make Louisa into some sort of martyr or hero but instead she is deeply flawed and scared of getting hurt again. She does stupid things, misses opportunities and has an often fraught relationship with her family. Working in a dead end job in an Irish theme bar in an airport, where she watches planes take off and land, possibilities and opportunities that she is not a part of, the reader stays with Louisa as she experiences many of the trials and tribulations that they do. Her flaws and interesting choices can make her a frustrating character at times as she trips herself up and is her only road block to happiness. Moyes brilliantly captures the complexities of modern life and the difficulty in trying to live for oneself.
Louisa attends a ‘Moving On’ grief counselling group with others like her who are struggling to move on. This provides a surprising amount of humour given the dark subject matter. However the longer Louisa seems to be stuck the more those around her start to move, to develop their interests and take new paths in life, perhaps none more so than Louisa’s stay-at-home mother, who discovers a whole new side to herself when she starts reading feminist literature. The additional characters have their own personalities and story lines but are never quite as fully rounded as the protagonist. The repercussions of Will’s decision have rippled through both his and Louisa’s family, and the question of what happens when we live for our own fulfilment is explored. Further, the introduction of several new characters reenergise both Louisa and the plot line. Moyes does give in a little to sentiment, with a few very convenient and slightly unrealistic plot twists occurring towards the end of the novel, but the reader forgives this because of the excellent writing and shared desire to see our protagonist succeed.
With moments of humour, happiness and occasionally deep sadness After You brings Louisa, and the novel, to a satisfying new position. However it will not touch the heart in quite the way Me Before You did and it is worth noting that to fully appreciate the complexities of After You it is ideal to have read Me Before You. The slightly open ending begs the question of whether there will be a third episode for Louisa, and having devoured the novel I can only hope that there is. Very few authors delve into what happened next and the messy aftermath of Will’s death must have left the author (and reader) a little apprehensive about picking up the story, but the doubts quickly fade away. This is a satisfying and enjoyable novel that will entertain Louisa fans everywhere.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Jojo Moyes, After You (Michael Joseph, 2015). 978 0 – 718 179618, 407pp., hardback
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