Long before the film made this novel universally known, it had become one of my lifelong favourites. There are so many reasons why people love this book and why it was optioned for a film. It’s a transformative tale for a start. These two characters, Louisa and Will, change each other’s lives during the course of the novel. They are strong, likeable characters that stay with you. There is a heartbreaking love story at the centre, but so much humour as well. However, those of you who read my blog regularly, know that I often add a very personal touch to my reviews. This book is so important to me because when I first read it, it felt like Jojo Moyes had a window on my life. We might think love stories like this don’t exist in the real world, but they do. I know this, because I had one.
Louisa has lost her job in a cafe, and is browsing the adverts in the Job Centre when she comes across an interesting opportunity. A personal assistant’s role for Will Traynor, providing care and supporting him to regain some independence. The Traynor family are rich compared to Louisa’s family and their son Will is quadriplegic since having a motorcycle accident. He needs a nurse on staff at all times, so Louisa’s role is more social. Despite her lack of experience, Mrs Traynor hires Louisa because she sees something in her that might just lift her son’s spirits. Will has been low since his accident, but that worsened recently when his ex-girlfriend became engaged to his best friend. Louisa is different from anyone Will has met: she is chatty and exuberant about life; wears bumble bee tights; and isn’t frightened of poking fun at him. Mrs Traynor tells Louisa that he wanted to end his life and when she refused his request to go to Dignitas, he tried to kill himself at home. Will and his mother have an agreement, that for six months she will try to convince him that life is worth living and if he still wants to end his life she won’t stop him. Louisa starts to break down some of Will’s barriers and take him out into the world, but the changes are not one sided. Will is changing Louisa’s life too.
What does all this have to do with me? I met my ‘Will’ in 2001. His name was Jerzy and we’d been corresponding for six months by post and email. I have multiple sclerosis and had been leafing through a magazine in my local therapy centre, when I saw an article I thought could inspire others who used the centre. Here was someone with MS who was still active, doing sailing and scuba diving from his wheelchair. So I wrote a short letter asking if I could reproduce some of his article in our newsletter. I added my brand new email address and hadn’t expected to hear anything back, but I did. We met six months later when I drove down to Milton Keynes for lunch, that turned into dinner and an all night chat. We were from different worlds. Like Louisa I came from a working class family, I worked for a mental health team part time and still lived in the same small town I’d grown up in. I’d never been to a ballet, never been abroad and hadn’t even been to an art exhibit. Whereas Jez was from a middle class family, had played professional rugby, travelled widely and loved opera. Yet, we recognised something in each other straight away. It was an immediate feeling of connection, belonging and life changing love. We were married eight weeks later. I know that sounds insane on paper, but at the time it felt like the most natural decision in the world.
From the outside, if you didn’t know us well, it might have looked like Jez was taking so much from me, but I got so much back in return. I wasn’t his sole carer, but I did look after him physically. We had an adapted car so I could drive him places and visit friends and family. I fought really hard to get him the right help and employed carers to keep him busy and safe when I wasn’t home. Like Louisa does with Will, I stopped him taking himself and life so seriously. I would make him laugh till his face hurt. I taught him that work wasn’t everything, that family and enjoying life were just as important – more so since neither of us knew how long we had to do all the things we wanted. Thank goodness I did teach him those things, because he had much less time than I expected. I don’t think I have room to list the ways he transformed my life. He supported me to finally go to university, full time for three years so I could throw all my energy into it. He took me to my first ballet and my first opera. We would go to The Stables and see jazz concerts as well as theatre. He opened the world up for me, in ways I never expected, something that endures to this day.
When Will takes Louisa to the opera, I understood how she felt completely. It was completely outside her comfort zone. I felt like a fraud, sat amongst ‘posh’ people who didn’t need the supertitles to understand what was going on. I mortified him by falling asleep, We went to a ball at his Post-Grad college and everyone round the table had ‘proper’ jobs as surgeons, bankers, and academics. Jez proudly told everyone I worked with people who struggled with their mental health. Three hours later everyone around the table had told me their problems and I came away so proud of what I did. He saw something in me I didn’t know I had, and motivated me to use it. Jez always wanted to get as much out of life as possible but when his MS deteriorated he became more restricted. We moved closer to family for support and I kept his spirits up with movie nights at home, making new foods he wanted to try, creating a beautiful garden for him to be in and doing impromptu dance performances at his bedside!
In the novel, Louisa starts to have feelings for Will. She organises a whirlwind tour of his favourite places for them both, but she changes it to Mauritius after he has a bout of pneumonia. He tells her, when they attend his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, that she is the only reason he gets up in the morning. Jez had his first bout of near fatal pneumonia just after we got married. His swallowing reflex was failing, causing food particles to be inhaled into his lungs. We knew this was going to continue and I had to learn to suction debris out, something that needed repeating more frequently as time passed. Even as he became confined to bed, I would go in and snuggle up to watch a film or listen to a book, For Louisa and Will the defining moment is on their last night in Mauritius. Louisa tells Will she loves him. Will confides in Louisa, that he wanted to end his life with Dignitas. If anyone should make him want to live it’s Louisa, but he still can’t face the rest of his life in this body and using a wheelchair. He will still be going to Switzerland to carry out his plans. Louisa is hurt and when they return, she resigns as his carer, unable to watch him go.
I didn’t get a choice. In the last year of his life Jez became dependent on others to keep his airway clear and to be fed through a tube into his stomach. Someone had to stay awake to watch him through the night. I was so tired. Eventually he ended up in hospital and then a care home – the last thing I wanted. He chose to end his life one afternoon, when the consultant cane to discuss his care. He explained that if we kept treating the pneumonia with antibiotics we were prolonging his life, but only till the next infection. However, if we stopped treating it aggressively and chose instead to keep his pain controlled, then ‘nature could take it’s course’. I looked at Jez and asked him what he wanted and he mouthed ‘no more’. This was no time for my own fears and needs. This was his life and his call, so I told them we were agreed on no more treatment. 36 hours later he died. Respecting his choice was the most I had ever loved him, but the hardest thing I’d ever done.
Will’s influence on Louisa’s life didn’t end on that holiday in Mauritius. In fact, it’s only just begun. No wonder Jojo Moyes wrote two more novels about her life after Will’s death. Endings are always beginnings. Will’s legacy to Louisa means she has so many choices. He wants her to have the chances he had in life, to try things, go places and build a new life for herself. Jez did this for me too and at first it felt strange to have such freedom. I didn’t feel I deserved it. However, it did open the world up for me. I could buy the roof over my head, travel, study more and basically go on living the way he would have wanted me to. With Will forever in her mind, cheering her on, Louisa goes on to make many new memories. I’ve had to accept that it means making the odd mistake too. That’s the thing about choices, we sometimes make the wrong ones. Yet, by moving forwards I have stopped myself doing the one thing Jez told me not to. The last thing he said to me was ‘don’t get stuck’. I didn’t. Today marks thirteen years since he died and I’m still taking chances, trying new things and hopefully, making him proud – even if I still make him roll his eyes occasionally.
The sequels After You and Still Me have both come along when I’ve been at similar points in my journey with grief. We see how much Louisa struggles to cope, without Will in her life. Yet, he does still act as an anchor for her, something that grounds her. Jez grounds me too, he also spurs me on, reminds me to indulge myself sometimes, but to go for things when I really want them. I have a totally different life from the one I expected. Although I’m still walking my MS is worse. I still travel when I can. I’m studying for an MA. I have someone who loves me and two amazing stepdaughters. Today we will be lighting a candle next to Jez’s photo in our living room and making him part of our day. Jojo Moyes wrote a beautiful love story and Louisa is such a character. I’m so glad to have moved through the last thirteen years with a fictional friend as incredible as Louisa Clark.