A Broken-Hearted Heroine Picks Up The Pieces In Jojo Moyes' 'After You'
Writer Jojo Moyes has a name that lacks gravitas. To be honest, I even feel a bit silly saying her name when I recommend her novels to people — which I do, often and energetically. It's hard to imagine a "Jojo" ever winning the Nobel Prize for Literature; but Moyes has already won a pretty good consolation prize — that is, the kind of staunch, adoring readership that will follow her novels anywhere they go.
Moyes writes those kind of big twisting romance-y stories about women, often working-class, who are distinguished, not so much by beauty or cultural capital, but by their pluck and indestructible sense of humor. Typically, a Moyes' heroine finds herself in a jam — she's in a dead-end job, or she's exhausted by care-taking demands, or she's fallen for the wrong person and suffers humiliation and loneliness. Then, with a lot of bumbling perseverance, she manages to make it through.
The mother of invention for this kind of plot (albeit in a more highbrow form) was Jane Austen and, by the way, last year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Austen's Mansfield Park, one of the most famous tales about women bumbling their way through to a sense of self-worth and happiness. Susan Isaacs and the late Maeve Binchy are more recent masters of this genre, while Moyes is one of the younger writers brilliantly carrying forward this "women in trouble" comedy-romance tradition.
In 2012, Moyes brought out a novel called Me Before You that became an international bestseller. It told the story of Louisa, "Lou," Clark, a young woman who lives with her parents in a quaint English village and works at a café near the local tourist attraction — a castle.
Lou is such a vibrant presence: she's observant and wryly funny; she's also a goofball who dresses in vintage clothes and bumble-bee tights. In short, Lou seems full of life and, yet, something is clearly holding her back. (We readers eventually learn what that traumatic "something" is.)
Without a university degree or any kind of training beyond high school, Lou's job options are limited. So, when she hears about a well-paying position caring for a young man named Will Traynor, who's been injured and is now a quadriplegic, she takes it — despite the fact that at her job interview Will tries to frighten her off by impersonating the Daniel Day Lewis character in My Left Foot. Lou falls in love with Will and he with her, but the kicker is that Will is more in love with the idea of ending a life he finds unbearable.
After You, as its title suggests, delves into what Emily Dickinson called "the hour of lead." It's a novel that explores how very miserable it is to try to go on living after the death of a loved one. Me Before You ended with Lou in Paris, trying to follow Will's postmortem command to: "Just Live Well ... Just Live"
In the opening of this sequel, we find out that Lou has made a mess of things. With a bequest from Will, Lou woodenly traveled around Europe alone and was depressed. She made herself buy an apartment in London, where she lives alone, and is depressed. She's fallen back into the kind of job she knew and is now working as a barmaid at a faux Irish pub at the airport. There, she fends off drunks, cleans the toilets, and wears a Lurex green costume and red wig that makes her look like "a porno Pixie." As she tells us, Lou suffers through many weeks that, "as if in response to a malign dog whistle, [just go] downhill."
Be assured, there are plot twists aplenty here and moments of silliness and the arrival of unexpected characters who help Lou lift herself up again, but, overall, After You is a more muted, riskier novel than its predecessor. Think Elizabeth Bennet after Darcy's eventual death; Alice after Gertrude; Wilbur after Charlotte. The "aftermath" is a subject most writers understandably avoid, but Moyes has tackled it and given readers an affecting, even entertaining female adventure tale about a broken heroine who ultimately rouses herself and falls in love again, this time with the possibilities in her own future.
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