Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life - steady boyfriend, close family - who has never been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex-Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair-bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life - big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel - and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.
Will is acerbic, moody, bossy - 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 of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.
* * *
Please Note: This review assumes that you have read the whole book and therefore reveals the Will’s final decision.
I was a little wary of this title even though it was very highly rated. Reading the blurb made me dread a sickly sweet Romance that ends with the good love of the Plucky Young Heroine convincing the poor, disabled Man Without Hope that life is indeed worth living. Fortunately that is most definitely not what we got, which is good because I was not looking forward to his electronic wheelchair humming off into a cozy sunset.
Our first impression of Will Traynor is not very flattering. He is rude, arrogant and totally self-absorbed. He is so important that he cannot wait and runs across the road to grab a taxi: right into the path of a motorcycle. This was an interesting choice by Ms Moyes, because it makes Will partially, if not wholly, responsible for his own fate. He is not a victim, even at the moment when his life is destroyed forever, and I was left wondering about the fate of the poor person on the motorbike, who could quite easily have been killed or terribly injured by the same accident.
Equally, Louisa is not the most inspiring of heroines. She floats through life trying to avoid anything difficult or challenging. Her job is easy and boring, her boyfriend is thoughtless and boring and her family life is cramped and unsupportive. To say that she is in a rut is a massive insult to ruts. She is stuck in a chasm of dull responsibility with no prospects of anything better coming along before she dies. But, all good things must come to an end so she is fired unexpectedly and her parents pressure her into applying for any job available. Of course, her lack of qualifications or interesting life experience make it difficult for her to get anything other than a soul-destroying job at the local chicken processing plant. As she comes to terms with this situation as her new future she gets an interview for a job as an assistant to a badly disabled man. For once, her unique approach to fashion and life is an asset and Mrs Traynor sees some possibility that Louisa will be able to reach Will and make him enjoy life a little.
At first glance, this seems massively improbable, especially as Lou has no training or expertise working with very disabled people. However, we soon learn that there is a trainee nurse to provide all the heavy lifting, medically speaking, and that Will has already dismissed all the experienced care-givers in the area. Whether Lou’s appointment is due to some perception by Will’s mother or simply desperation, we never really know but it does seem to work and gradually Will begins to tolerate and even like Lou.
Lou soon sees evidence that suggests that Will has tried to commit suicide in the past and we finally learn that he has made an agreement with his mother to wait only another 6 months before going to an assisted suicide facility in Europe. Unexpectedly, given her previous life, Lou meets this challenge head on and begins filling Will’s life with excursions and stimulation. Some of her plans are spectacularly disastrous, but simply living through them draws the pair together and their relationship deepens. As one would expect, love blossom and Lou finally gets rid of her dull, triathlon-obsessed boyfriend and devotes all her energy to planning the perfect holiday as a last effort to change Will’s mind about dying.
And this is where the story becomes massively controversial. Despite all her best efforts, Lou fails to make his life worth living and Will tells her that he still plans to commit suicide. She is devastated by his announcement that she is not a good enough reason for him to continue to live a life of endless suffering and dependency. However, she finally realizes that she needs to be there with him as he dies and makes peace with his decision to place his needs before hers.
Some people, such as Lou’s mother, will not accept Will’’s decision nor will they forgive those who allow him to fulfill the wish to die. Others understand that it is his decision to make and that nobody has the right to insist that he continues to live in increasing pain until an infection finally carries him off. The book makes it very clear that keeping Will alive is a constant battle against infection and that his health is so fragile that he could die at almost any time.
Naturally, the group discussed this issue for a very long time and whilst we could understand that the natural tendency of some people is to protect life at all costs, we unanimously agreed that it was Will’s decision, and his alone.
This was a man who had lived a vital, physical life before his accident; a man who could no longer do much more than sit in a chair and watch the world go by. Some people can adjust to that way of life, but others cannot. We appreciated that Lou sought out message boards for paraplegics and their care-givers, so that we saw that not all of them succumbed to the initial shock and grief. Many of them were living relatively happy lives, but understood Will’s frustrations. We were also happy that there was no miraculous recovery or wonder medicine that arrived to save the day, although Will could certainly afford any treatment that money could buy. In fact, we liked Ms Moyes decision to make Will wealthy enough that financial considerations were not a problem for him or his family. Even in Britain, where medical costs are mostly free at the point of delivery, he would not have easy access to some of the things that make his life more pleasant.
Some have criticized this book as a manifesto for killing disabled people. This is not how we viewed it. We saw it more as a very sad story about 2 people who met, fell in love and improved each other’s lives for a short time. However, that could not overcome the pain and suffering that one of them had to endure without possibility of respite.