Updated: Dec 19, 2021
In COVID times, we all know the saying "stay six feet apart at all times" so while this book was not written about COVID, it feels as though it were written for such a time as this.
You all already know how terrible I am at following the "read the book before watching the movie" rule so I won't even try to defend myself. I will simply admit it...I watched Five Feet Apart before I read the book.
Truly, the story has taken on a new meaning with COVID forcing everyone to stay six feet apart from one another (not simply those with cystic fibrosis). So it makes sense, then that I would choose to return to this book after living through a pandemic and the frustration of such a measurement myself.
That's not why I read it.
In reality, I picked up this book from the library in hopes of taking something exciting with me to Sr. High summer camp to read. If you have been paying attention to my blog posts (and/or my monthly newsletters) you'll know I attended both Jr. High and Sr. High summer camps with Elevate as a counselor (check out the pictures from the 12th-17th and 19th-24th here). The first week, I took my school book (Minding the Heart) as well as 2 "fun" books in case one was boring or I read through them too fast. Spoiler alert: both were boring and I read through them at a snail's pace.
So the second week of camp, I searched for a book on my Goodreads "to read" list (if you have suggestions of books I should add to that list, leave them in the comments below!) that I thought would be good to read next and picked it up at the library. Five Feet Apart was the lucky pick.
Immediately as I started the book I could tell it was going to be different from the movie. The book actually shows the love story of two teenagers (close to 18 years of age) with cystic fibrosis from both points of view. The book swaps between telling the story from the side of Stella and Will whereas the movie tends to revolve around Stella. If you read the description of the movie ("Seventeen-year-old Stella spends most of her time in the hospital...) you would guess that the book would be told from her point of view. So you can understand my surprise to see that both Will's POV and Stella's were present.
I did think that this was done well. This allowed the reader to see what was going on in Will's head as well as Stella's and see some of the background things that weren't presented in the movie (like Will setting up a birthday dinner for Stella).
Honestly, the book all in all was done extremely well. I don't know if the authors have cystic fibrosis or any other chronic or fatal condition, whether they know someone who does, or whether they simply researched their butts off but whatever the situation, they were able to reflect the unknown symptoms of the disease in the book. One can look up cystic fibrosis online and get a list of "symptoms" and "treatments" but what you can't look up is the way a person feels when they are constantly battling something that takes over their body and their life.
Pam Powell of Reel Talk suggests that much of the procedures and protocols in the movie (and by extension, the book) are incorrect and would not be applicable to real cystic fibrosis patients. I would not know because I, thankfully, do not have cystic fibrosis.
What I did find to be really moving was the way these authors reflected the emotionally painful situations that one comes across with this disease and how they had the character take charge of her life, attempting to "steal" something back from the disease that had stolen so much from her.
You guys, this was so powerful for me to read in a time where:
I dealt with COVID stealing my life for over a year: Because of my different medical conditions, my family and I felt it was unsafe for me to be out and about during the worst of COVID. For over a year, we self-quarantined and I went out less than 20 times (mostly to go to the doctors, once to get my US citizenship, and on a few walks with my family). Just like the characters in the book, the entire world had to stay 6 FEET APART from one another. This disease was affecting everyone, each in their own ways and it was stealing from each of us, preventing us all from seeing family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. I longed to be with my church community and the friends within it just as Stella longed to be with Will.
I dealt with asthma: I am NOT saying asthma is even half as terrible as cystic fibrosis is. To compare the two: there are about 1,000 new people diagnosed with cystic fibrosis every year compared to 3 million with asthma in the US alone. Both are chronic but asthma can fade away while cystic fibrosis is lifelong, incurable, and often fatal. The mean survival for cystic fibrosis patients is 30 years while somewhere around 3,500 die from asthma a year (remember, there are 3 million new cases a year and most of these deaths are preventable). So while asthma is completely unlike cystic fibrosis, it is unpleasant. Especially when the air around me is smoky. As I read this book, I was at camp (being more athletic than usual) on a week where smoke began to fill the air. I definitely began to struggle to breathe and began to relate to the characters.
I have a chronic, incurable condition: Again, I am NOT suggesting my nerve condition is as bad as cystic fibrosis. What I am saying is that I related to many of the thoughts that ran through the characters' minds because of my own incurable condition. I fight my own fight against pain and nausea. Sometimes I feel the need to be strong for my parents. I certainly find that organizing my room, meds, books, schedule, and anything else I can get my hands on helps me feel in control. Often, I feel frustrated at how unfair it all is and I want to throw something or "steal" something back from my syndrome. I get it. And I felt like the authors did as well. (you can read my poem about this subject below the book cover at the bottom of this post or in my book)
Aside from that, I felt that the authors had a reasonably surprising book.
SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don't want spoilers, stop reading now!!
Often, with books (and movies) about characters with a fatal disease, you expect someone to die. You hope they won't. You cross your fingers it will all turn out ok and the characters will end up together and float off into the distance holding hands and kissing beneath a beautiful sunrise. But that's never what happens. Somehow, someway, someone always dies.
But in Five Feet Apart, it's not who you expect. I was horrified to see who died and cried both while watching the movie and again while reading the book. And yet, I was impressed with the authors' ability to include twists and turns in the book.
The star-crossed lovers story is so overdone. No one wants another story where they can't be together because someone died. No one wants another story where they can't be together but end up together anyway (although admittedly, I will read both of those stories and love them all!). But these authors took the star-crossed lovers trope and the fatal illness storyline and they gave it a new spin and unexpected plotlines and I was blown away.
This is a story to read and a book to own (if only because of the gloriously beautiful cover. Man, I want that on my shelf!!).
Dear Central Neural Sensitization Syndrome
When I first met you
I thought you would stop me from doing anything
I thought you would block my
Ability to have friends
Ability to spend time with my family
My ability to love
I thought you would take away everything good in my life
And replace it with pain
The all over
Pain I knew so well
I thought you would consume my will to live
Dear central neural sensitization syndrome
When I first met you
I thought you would be the end of me
Now I know
My life begun
When you TRIED to take it over