“Only one person can give you a purpose” ~ (After You, Jojo Moyes, p.300)
On a long distance flight a few years ago, I started and finished “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, a story about Louisa Clark, age 26, who takes a job as a carer for Will Traynor, age 35, who is a quadriplegic. Louisa has lived in the same town her whole life, has few friends, and she has done and experienced very little. Before his accident, Will lived a full life with work and friends and adventure and passion, and when Louisa meets him, he is an angry and difficult patient. They come from different worlds, but they help each other discover life. In particular, Will helps expand Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to new experiences, widens her ambitions, and helps her to heal after traumatic events in her past. He teaches her to expect more of herself and of her life.
In addition to the growing love and care and friendship between the two characters, the book addresses the topic of physician assisted suicide. Before meeting Louisa, Will decides that his life is not one he wants, and makes an appointment to end his life in Switzerland. Then Louisa enters his life, and the book is about who they are before they meet one another, and how encountering each other changes their lives. It is a breathtaking read, and before my flight had landed, I finished the book. I identified with Louisa’s hesitancy at trying new things and her exhilaration at new discoveries, and felt delighted as she developed new independences and broadened her world. I read “Me Before You” while moving to Vancouver after a month long research trip to Indonesia at the end of my Masters degree, and the experience of reading the book helped fuel and energize me through settling in and finding my first full-time job after graduation.
It was a book of the best kind – one that caused the pieces of my being to fit together differently after the read.
Recently I discovered that a sequel to “Me Before You” called “After You.” has just been published. Though Jojo Moyes had never intended to write a sequel, so many readers wrote and contacted her asking her what happened to Louisa and the other characters, that she decided to write another story that begins about a year and a half after the last book ends. The book opens with Louisa working at an Irish themed bar at the Heathrow airport that she does not particularly care about, but back in London after time living in Paris and travelling in Europe drifting and trying to make sense of her life. She is thinking about Will and her life when she goes to the roof of her apartment one night after work, and startled by someone else on the rooftop at the same time, falls off the roof of her building.
That event catalyzes the events of the rest of the novel. Her fall puts her back in contact with her family, introduces her to new people who challenge her, forces her to face her grief and understand it, and asks her to push herself to explore her world in new ways. It’s a very, very different book from the first, but like the first book, it addresses topical issues (this time around Moyes explores teenage cyberbullying/blackmail) while continuing the story of Louisa’s development. What I enjoyed most about the book is that although it tells a specific story, it addresses themes of purpose and fear and belonging that have universal relevance. In the first book, Louisa is scared, but with the help of Will she develops the courage to open her heart, see herself in a new light and take risks. She gets hurt in the process, and we see the physical manifestation of this in her fall of the roof. In the second book, Louisa gradually physically rebuilds herself, but the pain lingers in her aching hip and other injuries. Despite the pain and her fear though, she learns to step out on her roof again. It is harder to recovery emotionally. She is terrified of being open and vulnerable again and experiencing loss, and the book is about Louisa learning to challenge herself, contribute towards the lives of other people and recognize that the risk of experiencing pain is part of the human experience and a full vibrant life.
Throughout the book, Louisa is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life even though her life is not what she expected it to be, and she keeps hoping something will happen to move herself forward. When Louisa loses Will it is painful, but in that loss lies the possibility for growth and new understandings and knowledge. That end was also a beginning, and at different points in the novel, Louisa’s family become frustrated with her for her lack of action. When so much of life is taking care of one’s family and fulfilling responsibilities, Louisa is not bound by specific responsibilities and people. She has lost, but if she is willing to see it, she has the freedom to create her life anew.
The search for purpose and meaning is a universal one and though the challenges and context are different, this book resonated with me. I live in South Africa now, and my life looks so different from what it did just a year ago. And in a new context, with a new set of rules of what I can and cannot do (visa wise – it isn’t very doable to work as a foreigner), finding purpose and meaning and new projects is something that I think about a lot. While my context is not Louisa’s context, it is scary to be away from the familiar and not be able to apply for work. At the same time, beyond the fear, I recognise that this is a unique moment, and that these changes and this new environment are an opportunity to do something new that is different from the work and community development I have done in the past. Perhaps instead of the continental move being a limitation, it too is an opportunity for growth and change and new contributions. I’m still learning about Joburg so I’m not sure yet where I fit, but reading this book has definitely energized me to strive to create meaning and purpose in my new life.
And if you have stories and advice to share of moving and migrating and in general starting again, I’d love to hear from you. As I learn I’ll share here, and I’d love the learning to be a 2-way street.