The difficult second album, or in this case, the sequel to cash-in on the movie adaptation of the first. Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You was the sort of romantic novel (dare I say, “chick-lit”?) that transcended labels and made its way to the mainstream. It dealt with difficult subject matters like disabilities and euthanasia. Along the way Moyes managed to sneak the characters inside your heart so that by the end of the book it looked like your hay fever was playing up or you’d been cutting onions all day.
The tears this time start much earlier but they are ones of frustration. Apparently the author decided to pen a sequel because people kept asking what happened to Louisa Clark after the first novel. What was her life like after falling in love and having to watch the man pursue assisted suicide at Dignitas? How did she spend the wealth he’s left? Had she followed his instruction to live life to the full in his honour?
It was a complete tale. The happy ending, after such a painful story, was the hope Louisa would go on to lead a fuller life.
Or we can pause that thought and catch up with her working at an airport bar for a boss she hates, living in a paid-for but soulless flat, estranged from her family (being strict Catholics, they didn’t appreciate the suicide element).
Despite travelling, Lou hasn’t found herself by the start of After You. That journey from country to country left her feeling isolated. Just like before she met and fell for the deceased Will Traynor, she is lost and without direction. Except this time she has a bundle of guilt to carry around.
Had the book paused here and explored this loneliness, it could have built on the underlying themes that made Louisa’s character so strong and engaging first time around. You can feel her loss and how she is lost because of it.
Instead Moyes turns her disarray into a plot device which sees Louisa get drunk and walk along the edge of her rooftop balcony. When she is startled by a voice from behind her at the window, down she falls. A neighbours table and patio equipment help break the fall, her body and the novel lie in pieces below.
Cue the not-so-subtle additions to the cast list. A comforting male paramedic (we’ll need him for a love interest later), the return of her parents (near death is a good way to repopulate a dwindling cast), a support group to speed up the grieving process, and eventually, the return of that mystery female voice.
That turns out to be Lily, a precocious tearaway of a sixteen-year-old . . . and Will’s daughter.
Lily’s mother – never painted as anything more than a selfish, self-centred example of bad parenting – had chosen to refrain from telling Will about Lily. In those days he was a womaniser and it seemed he wouldn’t have cared. So Lily grew up fatherless, until her mother married, then became isolated as the unwanted step-child.
Upon discovering she has another family, she sets out to connect with them. Her research and endeavour leads her to Lou. Lily wades into her existence, a whirlwind or questions and trouble. Without chance to pause for breath, the girl is using her flat as a second home and turning her life upside down.
For the first half of the book, her interruptions leave little in the way for compassion. She’s the type of stranger any sane person would have sent packing. Seemingly thoughtless and on a self-destructive path, all she does is create havoc for Lou and fails to find the common ground with her father’s parents.
What makes these interludes harder to process is how moments that should make you gasp just bring about a sigh. And time becomes irregular. Entire passages are filled with language that makes it sound like months must have passed, to find out it’s been a little over a week. It’s the sort of forced progression that goes against the techniques used in Me Before You.
Then the first real bomb drops.
We learn why Lily has been so wayward. The reasons she has been edgy with certain reoccurring strangers and what has made her so tormented. Suddenly you feel angry for her and once again Moyes proves she can secretly plant little compassion seeds that are slowly watered as she tells a tale.
Lily and Lou are reunited after a painful period of separation and they start to move forward together, honouring the theme of the book, and Will’s message to “Live well.”
Although it appears Lou could be doing this at the expense of her own happiness, even to the extent of turning down a dream job in New York, proving that doing the right thing and the thing that feels right is often complicated and far from clear-cut.
It’s moving enough to cut Moyes some slack for the awkward love scenes and Lou’s descriptions (she has developed a desire to sniff things a lot) and baffling oversights. We’re supposed to believe she lived in Paris for months, picked up parts of the language but was bamboozled by the French naming of beef cheeks on a menu, only to later use the phrase in her narration, “entente cordiale,” as if it were an everyday occurrence.
But these gripes don’t ruin what was an ambitious attempt to breathe life into a story that had already been completed first time around. The scenes are sometimes forced, but overall Lou’s natural way and humour, not to mention her caring spirit, shine through.
The final sequences may be too over the top for some, it’s telling that Jojo Moyes has had her head in movie scripts because we get the big Hollywood ending. But it’s also clear she still has the ability to draw believable characters that pull on heart strings.
Will there be a third in the series? Probably. Let’s hope next time Lou manages to stay more grounded from the start.