Romance Novel

Book Review – Me before You by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes crafted an exceptional tale of characters suffering from traumas both visible and invisible in Me before You. In the process she may have written the most unconventional love story every created. The tale also included some unexpected plot developments. A heart warming and heartrending read resulted.

I don’t typically read romantic dramedies so I didn’t know quite what to expect when I began this book. While I had some issues with it I thought both the story and main characters outstanding.

The author introduced readers to twenty six year old Louisa (aka Lou), “an ordinary girl, leading an ordinary life.” This suited her “fine.” (Location 346) Her boyfriend, Patrick, took her for granted. Her family favored her older sister. The story began as Lou lost her job working at a café. (It’s hard to imagine a more “ordinary life” than this in the modern era.) Through an employment service she managed to unexpectedly end up with a job caring for Will: a quadriplegic. This character lived the life of a playboy, extreme sport enthusiast and corporate raider. He experienced an ideal life until his motorcycle accident.

While people who haven’t read the book will no doubt wonder how someone with no medical training obtained a job caring for someone in Will’s condition, I won’t give away spoilers. I would point out that during the interview process Will’s mother, Mrs. Traynor, emphasized how Lou’s previous employer described her “warm, chatty and life-enhancing presence.” (Location 408) These characteristics served as an outstanding contrast to Will’s bitter, surly attitude in the novel.

I give Ms. Moyes great credit for developing the relationship between these oppositional characters as well as she did. Her prose made it seem natural and unforced. That’s a great accomplishment in such an unconventional love story.

In the course of reading Me before You, I hated putting it down. The author hooked me into wondering what would happen next. It’s a testament to the story’s strength that I recalled many of its details close to a month after reading it. It’s ironic that my main criticisms regard how poorly the author wrote it.

The book contained some clichés. The most egregious took place when Will’s former fiancé and his best friend decided to get married. I understand that the author needed to establish how miserable Will’s new life became for him, but this was just too formulaic for me. Some other clichés included when Lou described Mrs. Traynor’s “knuckles were white on the arm of the sofa.” (Location 1641) While the author presented every chapter but one from a character’s point-of-view, I thought the expression “spoiling for a fight” even too banal for a modern person to use in speech.

I also didn’t like the point-of-view changes. I’d estimate that 90% of the narration came from Lou’s perspective. I thought the ones from Mr. Traynor, Mrs. Traynor, Nathan (Will’s “professional” caregiver) and Treena (Lou’s sister) unnecessary. They broke the narrative flow, as well. I would also add that each of these characters only narrated one chapter each. I had trouble following the one from Treena’s point-of-view due to excessive use of pronouns. I couldn’t tell if she or Lou were the one speaking. It’s never good when a reader has to return and re-read the same passage several times.

I thought the author resorted to telling far too often. I couldn’t visualize how Lou “pulls a face.” (Location 100) Lou made a remark that, “It took almost forty minutes for Will’s temperature to return to an acceptable level.” (Location 1277) It made me curious as to what constituted an “acceptable level”. After a crucial conversation between Lou and Will’s mother, the former observed, “It was almost eleven minutes before I finally heard Mrs. Traynor’s car start up and drive away.” (Location 1943) I couldn’t believe Lou had counted them.

While I hate making this point, I found some of the writing just plain lousy. Following a rain storm, “The roads are slick with water.” (Location 127) What else would make them “slick” following a shower? The author began chapter 4 with the sentence “Two weeks passed.” (Location 735) A published author once termed expressions like that as “lazy writing” to me. Lou called Patrick’s description of the “Xtreme Viking Triathalon”: “The Viking was spoken about with reverence.” (Location 922) Not only did the author use passive voice, I doubt anyone would express herself like that in real life.

To be fair, the author did include some outstanding lyrical flourishes. I liked reading about the “pastel-colored wallpaper paste” (Location 742) and the alliteration of the “buds burst from brown branches.” (Location 1474) The chapter from Mrs. Trayor’s point-of-view contained an excellent use of a garden for symbolism.

It was only when we brought Will back home, once the annex was adopted and ready, that I could see a point in making it (the garden) beautiful again. I needed to give my son something to look at. I needed to tell him, silently, that things might change, grow, or fail, but life did go on. That we were all part of some great cycle, some pattern that it was only God’s purpose to understand. I couldn’t say that to him, of course—Will and I have never been able to say much to each other—but I wanted to show him. A silent promise, if you like, that there was a bigger picture, a brighter future. (Location 1724)

The strengths of Me before You far exceeded its shortcomings. For those, like me, who aren’t particularly interested in “love stories”: don’t let the “romance” element dissuade you from reading. I’d recommend to those interested in a moving tale with memorable characters. Just make sure you have some free time available before beginning. I found putting the book down before finishing the most challenging aspect of it.

Book Review – Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

What better way to show that special lady in one’s life just how one feels about her than by taking her to a movie? How about one that features two idiots engaging in brutal sadomasochistic sex? Happy Valentine’s day, hon. Since I’m not a big movie fan, I decided to stay in this weekend and read Fifty Shades of Grey. At one point I thought I’d need to be put in bondage to get through it, but I finished, anyway. While I know this sounds bizarre coming from me, it exceeded my expectations. To be fair, from the reviews I’ve read, this wasn’t hard to do.

Based on the merciless pillorying it received, I expected the level of prose one would find from a fourth grader. If a verb appeared every few lines or so, I would’ve thought the book much better than I’d anticipated. Still I found it lacking. The author presented the story exclusively in Anastasia’s point-of-view. The narrator related the drama in a manner I’d expect from a self-absorbed twenty-something. But still: I would’ve expected a better range of language from someone who majored in English. Then again, Anastasia clearly didn’t receive the best education. After four years of college she couldn’t think of any other way to describe a smile than “wry”. Maybe in one of the sequels she got her tuition back.

And then we have the descriptions. Anastasia related her amatory endeavors with the same emotion and passion that one would use reciting from a phone book. I can’t cite passages. They struck me as so dry I didn’t mark them while reading the text. Granted no one reads erotica anticipating the verse of a John Keats, but I do expect some lyrical flourishes. After all, this was a love story; or at least one of intense infatuation. Pretty much Ana limited her descriptions of Christian to how physically attractive she found him. REALLY!!! Because of that she’s willing to let him bind her, hit her and use her body as a laboratory for his depraved desires. I’m sorry, but no one’s that good looking.

Now we come to the plot. I don’t mean to spoil it for anyone, but here it goes. Young miss innocent girl met worldly guy who seemed like a living reflection from a dream. BUT WAIT! He had a dark secret!!! He slowly drew her into his bizarre world. Should she leave him? Could she change him? He experienced conflicting thoughts, also. Should he give up something that’s a part of him for the love of this woman? Have you heard this one before? It’s been used in the past. I remember encountering it in a work called Every Book Every Written.

The one positive element to Fifty Shades of Grey entailed the author’s depiction of Anastasia. While I loathe making this point, I found her behavior very believable. In fact, her taste in men and her thought process reminded me of a young lady I knew at one time. I suspect the only reason I finished the book was to try and understand this way of, for lack of a better term, thinking. It didn’t. It did make me wish Christian could’ve somehow isolated Anastasia’s “inner goddess”, tied it up in the Red Room of Pain, and left it there.

On the subject of believability: I found Anastasia’s first erotic encounter completely beyond all bounds of possibility. She acknowledged Christian as her first lover. Yet, she turned in a performance worthy of an Olympic medal. That’s a hell of a first effort. If I’m to believe this I need to believe Jimmy Page belted out “Stairway to Heaven” the first time he picked up a guitar, the Theory of Relativity comprised Einstein’s first words, and two year old Shakespeare’s first scribbling made up the soliloquy to Hamlet. Folks, we can all dream, but it doesn’t happen in the real world.

I don’t anticipate Fifty Shades of Grey will make the list of 100 must reads for the 21st century. I have to admit, that I thought it an interesting book, but not so much for the content. What intrigues me is that in spite of the poor reviews, it’s a New York Times Best Seller. While critics compete over who can pan the film version the harshest, it made over $94M in its opening weekend. The real gray area is why subject matter such as this resonates with such an immense audience.