Still Me: A Novel
“I thought about the fact that there is such a high cost to anything a woman chose to do with her life, unless she simply aimed low. But I knew that already, didn’t I?”
Tucked into the middle of JoJo Moyes’ latest, Still Me, is a truth that hurts. The second sequel to Moyes’ wildly popular novel, Me Before You, Still Me is essentially the continuing adventures of the eternally perky Louisa Clark.
In this story, Lou has headed off to New York City, set for a job as an assistant to the pampered young wife of a rich, older businessman. She left behind memories of Will (from Me Before You) and a blossoming relationship with Sam the Ambulance Guy (from After You, Moyes’ second novel in this series).
She is by turns amazed, disillusioned, and satisfied with the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-ready Gopnik family. In between galas and lunch dates, she gets acquainted with other, less camera ready families and sees another side of New York life. There is the obligatory love interest, of course, a man who closely resembles Will in both appearance and personality. Lou finds herself entangled in the highly competitive and surprisingly secretive lives of her employers and their neighbors, and finally has to face her own secrets and ambitions.
Still Me starts with Lou delivering a rom com-ready word vomit recount of the plot of the first book to an unbelievably patient NYC TSA gate agent. There is a lighter brush on the plot of the less popular second novel crammed in there, too. If the reader makes it through that rough beginning, Moyes does a nice job of reintroducing her most popular character.
Lou’s wonder at the city that never sleeps will feel familiar, as it is a staple of many fish out of water themed books and movies, but Moyes’ faithfulness to her character lets it ring true: “briefly, I understood exactly what Will had been trying to explain to me two years previously: for those few minutes, my mouth full of unfamiliar food, my eyes filled with strange sights, I existed only in the moment. I was fully present, my senses alive, my whole being open to receive the new experiences around me. I was in the only place in the world I could possibly be.” Lou’s bright eyed credulity makes what could have been a painfully banal instant personal and relatable.
Moyes’ facility with Lou’s character and personality, when those facets of the story are allowed to take center stage, is exactly what carries this novel along beautifully. Lou is a lovely, mostly realistic character (though in this go round she is disappointingly rom com clumsy. Where did that come from, and why?), a young woman who is still finding her own way in the world, waiting for permission to have ambitions of her own making. She is strong and funny, with a sharp wit and a surprising vulnerability that makes her thoroughly human.
The numerous and pervasive callbacks to Me Before You are curious, and frankly annoying after a while. It is in those sections that this novel falters, inevitably losing forward momentum with each. The preceding novels about Louisa Clark were startlingly different in their tones: Me Before You was a fairy tale with dark edges, as Lou’s inherent optimism and plucky sensibility was challenged by Will’s state of mind and choices. The final scenes marked a return to optimism, however.
After You had a darker tone as Lou struggled with more realistic depression and a sense of futility that anyone who has lost a close loved one would find accurate. Her relationships in this book were complex and challenging in a different way than those of the first book. Though that book did reasonably well, the reflection of Louisa’s pain proved disappointing to many readers.
Still Me offers something of a fall back to the first book. Louisa is chipper and plucky as she stumbles her way through life wearing wacky outfits and scattering verbal faux pas in her wake. There’s a meet-cute moment with Will’s doppelganger, a long distance relationship with a visit to the obligatory misunderstanding trope, the mean girls moment with the doppelganger’s country club set. These facets feel artificial next to Lou’s kitchen confrontation with Sam, her facility with Ms. Gopnik’s anxiety, and her relationship with Ms. DeWitt and her dog, Dean Martin. Those are the scenes where Louisa shines and her character feels like a friend you haven’t met yet.
The artificiality of those Me Before You moments, the tropes and the sudden and unexplained clumsiness, make Still Me feel like a funhouse mirror version of a rom com. And perhaps that is the effect Moyes was aiming for.
The opposites attract relationship and storybook ending of Me Before You made the complex question at the center of the novel palatable and feature film ready. Fans were less enamored with After You’s more realistic view of the world, so it is reasonable to expect that Moyes probably faced some pressure to recreate the world of her first book. Is it so far-fetched to suspect that the NutraSweet recall of that novel in this one is somewhat of a middle finger to the crew that would prefer fantasy to reality?
Lou’s relationship with Will’s physical and social twin? Imagine a Will Traynor who did not face a debilitating injury and the subsequent humbling, paired with a lower middle class, socially awkward Lou. Long distance relationships take a skewering here, as does “I will do anything and give up anything for this relationship” romanticism. One has to wonder if Moyes herself is speaking through Louisa when she has her ruminate on the options open to women and aiming low.
Still Me is a book that is deeper than it originally appears, and Moyes’ agility with language, character emotion, and story plotting is strained to the breaking point at times. Her use of tropes and over exaggeration of those aspects of Lou’s character that are romantic comedy ready is both subversive and subtle, allowing her to let Lou at the end of the story, in a way that was natural and necessary, find a truth and an answer for which she had been searching since the first novel. The issue will be whether the reader has the patience to see the trees of truth through the forest of romantic comedy claptrap. Moyes has to be watching to find out the answer to that conundrum as well.