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After You


After You

So you write a bestselling novel, people clamor for a sequel, and you say no. And then, in the middle of the night, an idea comes to you for the further adventures of...

...Louisa Clark, in the case of English writer Jojo Moyes and ME BEFORE YOU, her smash-hit semi-tragic romance, and its successor, AFTER YOU. Will this book sell? Absolutely. But will it be as good as the original? That’s the challenge.

Moyes prefaces AFTER YOU with a letter begging early readers --- which means, I assume, reviewers like me --- not to commit spoilers so that both books can take first-timers by surprise. I promise not to divulge the unexpected plot twists in AFTER YOU. But I must say a little about the original novel. There’s a limit to how vague a review can be.

Here goes: In ME BEFORE YOU, Louisa --- Lou for short --- gets a job in her small English town, Stortfold, caring for a wealthy, angry, desperately depressed quadriplegic named Will Traynor (he was a big-deal London exec before his disastrous accident). He hates her. Then he loves her. And he wants her to claim a different future, a bigger future. Nonetheless, he kills himself.

What I’m leaving out is that this is one of the funniest and, at the same time, most heartrending novels I’ve ever had the luck to stay up all night reading. AFTER YOU has some of the same combination of wicked humor and poignancy, I’m happy to say, but at first it’s pretty grim.

It’s been 18 months since Will’s death, and we find Lou not in some exotic city pursuing a thrilling career, but living in a low-rent part of London and working at an Irish-themed airport pub. Will, you see, has skewed her world “so totally that it made no sense without him in it.” She sleeps around, drinks too much wine, and likes to go up to her roof and walk on the parapet like some benighted Philippe Petit. One night, she falls (or did she jump?). Result: multiple fractures.

"[ME BEFORE YOU] is one of the funniest and, at the same time, most heartrending novels I’ve ever had the luck to stay up all night reading. AFTER YOU has some of the same combination of wicked humor and poignancy..."

During her recuperation, Lou goes to stay with her family in Stortfold, and the welcome-home scene is like some screwball comedy, Mike Leigh-style: dotty, stroke-impaired Granddad; bossy single-mother, college-going sister Treena; born-again-feminist Mum; reliable, well-meaning Dad. As always in Brit lit, class counts. The economic gulf between Lou’s family and Will’s is striking. But there’s an emotional divide as well (which is how Lou got Will to trust and love her in the first place). The Clarks are warm, quirky, uncomplaining and compassionate, whereas the now-divorced Traynors are imprisoned by repression and grief --- things money can’t fix.

Lou tries to return to the present tense. She moves back to her London flat, reclaims her job, and joins a grief group, the Moving On Circle. It’s through the group that she re-encounters Sam, aka Ambulance Sam, the hot-guy paramedic who came to the rescue after her fall. It isn’t long before they’re having three straight days of sex so passionate that “I got cystitis and didn’t care” (that quote is vintage Lou). Sam is so perfect --- he’s kind, he cooks, he fixes things and people --- that Lou’s commitment phobia seems inexplicable. Except for the fact, as Sam says, that she “is still in love with a ghost.”

Meanwhile, not long after her return to London, one day she has an unexpected visitor: a reckless, hostile but somehow charming adolescent girl named Lily with a talent for gardening and a mysterious connection to Lou’s past. Lily is messy, indiscreet and a royal pain in the butt. But Lou takes her in and even gives her a key. Her sister, Treena, urges boundaries (“Teenagers are basically toddlers with hormones”), warning that Lily “could get into all sorts of trouble.”

Too right. Lily is by turns miserable (teenagers’ “default setting,” says Treena), angry, petulant and altogether obnoxious. I couldn’t wait for Lou to kick her out. In a way, this relationship echoes ME BEFORE YOU, with Lily instead of Will as the thorny, hopeless mess whom Lou has to restore to mental health. It also echoes the way Will changed Lou’s life, for in between escapades, Lily gets Lou to go dancing, paint the flat, and start dressing again in the brightly colored vintage clothes she loves (ME BEFORE YOU readers: Remember the bumblebee tights?). Lily even tells Lou --- okay, this book isn’t a homily-free zone --- that falling in love with someone else is not a betrayal of Will.

Ultimately we find out why Lily is acting out so hard; it has to do with sexual risk and humiliation. Actually, this is quite a feminist novel, for besides Lily’s blossoming there’s a breakthrough for Lou’s mother, who is reading The Female Eunuch, letting her legs go unwaxed, and attending a women’s poetry class instead of making Sunday lunch. Her liberation odyssey culminates in a right-on speech when Dad attacks her for serving store-bought cake at Granddad’s 80th birthday party. It’s a classic.

But Lou is still mired in guilt. She’s been blaming herself for Will’s suicide, feeling that he would have stuck around if she had been good enough. Then, towards the end of the book, Sam is shot in the line of duty, and Lou keeps him alive in the ambulance during a wild ride to the hospital. This proves redemptive: “I could be somebody’s center,” she realizes with relief, “his reason for staying.” Ironically, around this time she also gets a juicy job offer in New York, leaving her with a dilemma: Love or work? Comfort or adventure? My lips are sealed, Jojo.

Criticisms? A few. The episodes involving the members of the Moving On Circle and the Clark family, while a winning combination of black humor and pathos, occasionally feel over-long, like padding, and steal the thunder of the central drama. Also, I found the novel a bit of a slow starter. Lou is initially so down and passive that it’s hard to be sympathetic. In the second half, though, the story got going and captured me entirely; it’s funny, inspiring and worthy of at least a half box of Kleenex.

The finale is fairly open-ended, giving rise to thoughts of a third book (possible title: ME). But although I’d be curious about what might happen next, I suspect it would be smarter to imitate Louisa herself and “move on.” I know that Moyes has many other entrancing stories to tell, and I’m one of thousands who are eager to read them.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on October 1, 2015

After You
by Jojo Moyes

  • Publication Date: July 19, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Romance
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143108867
  • ISBN-13: 9780143108863