(Warning: spoilers ahead for those who haven’t yet read Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You.)
Louisa Clark is back in After You, the long-awaited sequel to Jojo Moyes’ bestselling novel Me Before You. Eighteen months after the death of Will Traynor, Lou is living in London, grieving the sharp-tongued, ornery man she was hired to assist, and came to love. She spent a year of her life caring for Will, severely disabled by an accident and intent on dying via assisted suicide. It was up to Lou, previously directionless Lou, to convince him life was still worth living.
But no one person can save the life of another, as Lou learned, and Will did die at the end of Me Before You, entreating Lou, to “just live,” because “There is a hunger in you, Clark. A fearlessness. You just buried it, like most people do.”
Now 28 and mostly alone, Lou is anything but fearless. In fact, readers might not recognize her. Gone are her fabulous, flamboyant clothes. Wallowing in a dead-end job at an airport bar, she spends her days dressed like a “porno pixie leprechaun,” hounded by her uptight middle-management boss. When off the clock, tired of being that girl, the one who helped a man kill himself, Lou dresses in plain jeans and T-shirts and hides away in her undecorated flat.
Until she falls off a fire escape, shattering her body and putting her, however temporarily, into a situation horrifyingly similar to the one that caused Will to take his life. Her appalled family forces Lou to attend a grief counseling support group before letting her out of their sight.
There, Moyes introduces another memorable, motley cast of characters. Lou’s fellow mourners all reflect pieces of Lou herself: the guilt over how they acted, or were unable to act, while their loved ones were alive; their hesitance to get out their and live their lives for themselves again. But the two people who have the greatest impact on Lou throughout the course of the novel aren’t in her support group.
The first is Sam, the paramedic who put Lou back together the night she fell. Sam is sorting through a grief all his own, and this common experience draws them to each other. The second and even greater influence on Lou, however, is Lily, a neglected teenager as lost as Lou is, who wears her loneliness and frustration on her sleeve, and demands care almost as pathologically as Lou seeks to give it.
On a first read, After You seems as frustrating, as centerless, as grief itself. But it soon becomes clear that the ambling nature of the plot is a deliberate device employed by Moyes. What is there to motivate Lou? Will may have told her to “just live,” but his story has ended. This story is about what happens to those who are left behind.
Lou, Sam, and Lily have all, in one way or another, been left behind. They struggle, over the course of hundreds of pages and thousands of words, to find a way back to themselves, to build a life worth living. Lou tries to find it caring for others: first Will, then Lily. But what she really needs, having loved and lost, is to truly find herself, perhaps for the first time. Patiently, painstakingly, Moyes takes us on that journey with her. It’s hard, and it’s painful, and at times the drudgery of it—the banal indignities of having to dress like a porno pixie leprechaun in a frizzy plastic wig, for example–are almost too much to bear. But ultimately After You is a story about honoring the lessons we’ve learned from lost love, and learning to be brave enough to move on. To reach for joy. To just live.