27-year-old Louisa Clark is in a rut. The café she works at has closed down, her boyfriend Patrick is more interested in training for a race than spending time with her, she gave up her bedroom for her sister Treena and nephew Thomas and is sleeping in a room the size of a closet, and her dad is about to be unemployed as well. Her parents depend on Louisa to contribute to the family’s living expenses since Treena, who’s always been more successful and perfect than Lou, is about to go back to college after taking a few years off to raise her baby. Louisa, having no specialized skills–having only landed her waitressing job on a combination of luck, enthusiasm, and charm–doesn’t have much hope as she re-enters the job market.
When Lou gets an interview with Camilla Traynor for a position as a caregiver for Camilla’s adult son, Will, Lou’s not confident in her chances of getting the job. She’s completely unqualified to provide medical care and is super awkward during the interview, so she is shocked when she is offered the job. Lou doesn’t even have to worry about Will’s physical and medical needs since he has an in-home nurse, Nathan. All she has to do is spend time with Will and make sure he’s not left alone for more than fifteen minutes at a time. It’s a strange job description, but Lou is determined to make a positive impression.
Throwing a wrench into her positive expectations is Will Traynor himself. Will is an attractive 35-year-old who was a successful, high-powered financier who loved adventure and his gorgeous girlfriend until he was hit crossing the street, leaving him quadriplegic. He is somber, angry, sarcastic, dismissive, and easily annoyed, as Lou learns very quickly. It seems that no matter how peppy, cheery, and social Lou tries to be, Will remains intent on maintaining his depressed mood. Lou comes to see how Will feels robbed of his independence, privacy, and dignity, leaving him hopeless and embittered as he mourns his former lifestyle. Lou’s confidence in her ability to be Will’s caregiver deteriorates as he rebuffs and seems to resent every attempt she makes at conversation, making her increasingly awkward around him, so she turns her attention to tidying the house to feel useful.
This set up works for a while until Lou accidentally leaves Will alone for longer than fifteen minutes after his ex-girlfriend visits to tell him she’s marrying the guy she left Will for after the accident. In a fit of rage and frustration, Will manages to smash a bunch of picture frames. Mrs. Traynor is furious that Lou was lax in her duties, but Lou can’t understand why a man who is paralyzed and sits in near silence all day needs constant supervision. After accidentally eavesdropping on Will’s family she finds out that in the past Will has attempted suicide when left alone for too long, and has grudgingly agreed to give his parents six more months until he goes to a center for assisted suicide in Switzerland. Lou confronts the Traynors and discovers they hired her because of her cheery demeanor, hoping she would help improve Will’s disposition and change his mind about seeking to end his life. Lou resigns her position, unable to stand by and watch Will’s march to death.
Treena implores Lou to return to the job, especially since their dad’s officially unemployed, and Lou was the only family member bringing in any income. Treena suggests Lou take Will on field trips that will prove to him that life is still worth living. Mrs. Traynor is on board with Lou when the plan is proposed. Will’s parents pledge to help financially with any of the trips and enlist Nathan’s help as well. Part of the plan is to let Will think he’s helping Lou have new experiences, keeping him in the dark about Lou’s knowledge of his 6-month plan.
Some of the field trips are disastrous, like their trip to the horse races where their van gets stuck in the mud, they’re denied entrance to the premium dining room, and, worst of all, Lou finds out Will doesn’t even like horse races. Lou begins to see how Will hates being gawked at and treated as though he’s helpless. She comes to understand more clearly why he puts up emotional barriers with the people he meets, and uses what she learns about him to plan trips that will be more enjoyable for him. She accompanies Will to his friend’s classical music concert, which she winds up loving despite expecting it to be dull. Will also enjoys the night, wanting to spend a few extra moments in the car on the way home to pretend as if he’s a regular guy taking a girl out for some culture. Will and Lou transition into a natural and easy friendship, learning about each other’s lives and pushing each other to look at life in different ways.
When a sudden bout of pneumonia derails Lou’s plans to bring Will on a trip to California to a facility that caters to paraplegics who enjoy extreme sports, she has to rethink her plans. She starts to reevaluate her true feelings for Will after Patrick begins to question how much time she spends with Will, especially after Will invites Lou to move in with him as her living situation at home gets more rattled. She realizes the prospect of losing Will is more painful than the thought of breaking up with Patrick. With only a few more weeks standing between her and Will’s planned suicide, will she be able to show him that life is truly worth living through her feelings for him?
This book could have easily gone into afterschool special territory with the topic of doctor-assisted suicide and the Right to Die movement, but it didn’t cross that boundary. The debate is obviously touched on by the characters’ different opinions about Will’s desire to end a life that no longer fits his personality and dreams, but it’s done in a way that’s natural and doesn’t feel preachy. At the end, one side isn’t definitively shown to be triumphant over the other. We are given opinions across the board: Will is gung-ho about dying on his own terms; his family doesn’t want to lose him but understand his feelings; Will’s wishes destroy Lou but she ultimately wants what’s best for him; and Lou’s mother thinks complying with Will’s wishes makes one guilty of murder. Their views are not lingered on in a way that would make it seem like the novel is an argument either for or against assisted suicide, which can be difficult to do when centering a novel on a controversial topic.
This is my favorite book so far this year. It was super easy to read, the characters were amazing, and the story was so engaging that it was difficult for me to put down the book and return to work after my lunch break. I loved how Will and Lou’s relationship developed from a distant employer/employee relationship to falling slowly in love with each other and helping each other work through their emotional and mental handicaps. They were a perfect fit for each other because each one had the antidote for the other’s emotional blockages. (And I always love a romance based on snark and witticisms.) Their feelings for each other developed naturally as they go from being uncomfortable and uncertain together to a point where they’re both happier in each other’s presence. Their love is pure and full of the best of intentions, and it’s beautiful to read.
Rating: 5 out of 5 yellow and black striped stockings