Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Five Feet Apart

Five Feet ApartFive Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't normally review books immediately after reading the last page. This gives me an opportunity to think and process what I've read and get my emotions in order. For Five Feet Apart I am breaking that rule as I feel that my emotions are important to why I wasn't a big fan of Rachel Lippincott's teenage romance story. First it's important to know I had a friend with cystic fibrosis...

My Brush with Cystic Fibrosis (CF)
Almost 20 years ago I lost a friend. I was 16 years old at the time. The last time I saw my friend Scott he was 17 and in the hospital. Scott was a great friend. I was in marching band with him and he was a funny, energetic and loving boy. We all knew his days were numbered. In the late 90's the average lifespan of someone with cystic fibrosis was about 17 years old. Scott lived to be 18. Always proud of making it a day past his 'expiry date' as he called it. As though he was yogurt that would spoil after a certain time. I suppose knowing he'd have a short life gave Scott an appreciation and affection for living that none of us (including myself) as teens were capable of understanding or appreciating. I'm still not sure I truly understand today at 36 years old. I tell you this so you can understand that CF is not just another awful disease to me. CF both was and wasn't my friend. It was integral to him and yet not a part of his personality. However it is a part of his legacy. I cannot forget (and wouldn't want to) those scary moments in parade routes, touring with our band or playing in a practice room when Scott would get an 'attack' (as he called them) where he couldn't breathe or coughed up mucus.

Why I Hate Books Written to Make You Cry
I have always hated contemporary books where the sole purpose is to make you cry. I couldn't stand the overdone teenage philosophy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or the plot twist of My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult or any of the other similar contemporary stories. Now this isn't just because I'm not a big crier; it's also because I just don't understand the point of a story when the primary reason is to make you cry. I'd much rather experience a truly poignant romance that evolves over time during the plot of a good book. Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Mariellier both come to mind when I think of amazing love stories that develop in spite of the challenges and plot in the story; instead of the love developing because of the plot.

Why'd I Even Bother?
I decided to read Five Feet Apart even if I don't love the sob fest story. Here's 3 key reasons why:
1) I like to read popular books so I can have an informed opinion,
2) I wanted to experience the CF of 'today' as much of the science and the lifespan have nearly doubled since I last encountered CF, and
3) I keep hoping someone will write a contemporary teen romance that I can fervently endorse.

The Writing & 3 Stars
I can say that Lippincott writes in a fast-paced, easy to read format. This is a very quick, no-time or words wasted story. It's also very representative of how many teens are likely to think or speak in similar situations. So while I didn't like a number of things (see list below); I cannot deny that Five Feet Apart is well written and has good characterization. Lippincott has you on the hook the entire time you're reading. Whether it's at a critical 'tragic' moment or just our lead boy watching YouTube videos of our lead girl. Each moment leads into the next and kept me flipping the page. This is the primary reason I give it 3 stars.

And So We Come to The Troublesome Items...
While on one hand I appreciate that Lippincott wrote a book about CF and helped CF gain some recent exposure; I just can't say this is a 'good' representation of what CF is like for those that live it each and every day. I cannot (and will not) speak for them, or for my long-lost friend; but I can tell you about what I saw, heard and experienced while at my friends side.

CF is a disease that takes your breath away & causes panic
It doesn't just make it difficult to breath like an asthma attack it actually stops your breathing in many ways. I remember many times my friend Scott would gasp for breath and you would hear nothing enter his lungs. The key, for him, was to stay calm. As I'm sure we can all imagine not being able to breath is horrifying and induces an instant panic attack. Sometimes I thought the panic must be worse for him than the lack of breath as the panic exacerbated things every time. There is one small moment of panic that our lead gal experiences. Every other 'panic' any CF teen i Five Feet Apart has is short lived, and is brought under control seemingly by sheer will. No examples of techniques or tricks to calm down, no counting, no breathing exercises, nothing. It's like the panic goes away with magic (just like they seem to find their breath).

One thing that was always a constant for Scott was the mucus. He always had handkerchiefs, ziploc bags and wet wipes or alcohol wipes in his pockets and bags. Why? Because he used them to cough up his mucus, seal the ickiness and then wipe off his mouth, hands, etc. Romantic right? This would happen multiple times a day (minimum) for Scott. Even on his best days he probably accumulated 5-6 bags minimum. Any physical activity would generally make this mucus loosening worse. The irony of it all is that the mucus leaving his system was a good thing. It meant he could (usually) breath a little better. Now if that's happening even without physical exercise let's address what our teens do.
In Five Feet Apart our teens do all of the following: run up and down 3-5 flights of stairs, laugh, swim, cry and a multitude of other things. Not once during these activities does mucus play a part. They are described as out of breath and coughing but no description of the ick factor that is so common for those with CF. Why? I assume because it's not pretty, elegant or romantic. Imagine an entire Harry Potter movie of Ron belching the slugs and knowing it's NOT CG. Disgusted? Likely. That is how I've always imagined Scott felt (I couldn't ask him as that movie scene came years after his passing).

Clapping is when someone else helps a CF patient to gain their breathe or dislodge mucus. It involves specifically hitting them between the shoulder blades and on the front of their chest with both hands, and with a certain amount of force. My understanding is that it is still common today. This doesn't happen even once during Five Feet Apart. Even a nurse doing it to another patient or a parent or friend asking if they can help could have happened. Instead it's completely ignored. Scott's friends, family and teachers all knew how to do this. There wasn't anyone who was close to him who didn't do this for him; in addition to patting his back and rubbing it in circles to help him calm and regain his breath.
Masks, Masks & More Masks
Whenever I visited Scott in the hospital; be it early on (years prior) or in the last few months of his death there was always one thing that was a constant. Masks. We all wore them. Not just the CF patients. And if you were at the hospital in the CF/Respiratory ward you were usually interrogated by a nurse in advance of entering a CF patient's room. They wanted to know when you last had a cold/flu or felt a bit off. If you weren't feeling all that great that day you'd be sent home. No chances were taken that you would pass on a flu or cold or something worse to a hospitalized CF patient. While masks play a role in Five Feet Apart they sure do seem to be conveniently left behind a good 80% of the time. I guess they aren't sexy enough.

The Drugs & Treatments
I cannot speak to the current drugs or treatments that exist for CF these days. So I could be in left-field here (however I take anxiety drugs and have a chronic pain condition, so I'm doubting much has changed); but anytime you have many drugs involved in your system there are side effects. Not even once does Lippincott mention the side effects of the drugs. None of our teens seem to experience urgency to urinate, constant thirst, dry mouth, digestive issues, headaches, dizziness, increased chest pain, etc. And that is just a small snippet of the side effects many of the drugs can cause. I remember days where Scott would tell us the side effects of the drugs were wearing him down faster than his limited breathing.

It's unbelievable to me that our teens are constantly enjoying pudding and milkshakes; yet no one discusses the nutritional issues that CF usually comes with. While our teens have feeding bags at night, I never felt like it was well explained or described why (and certainly none of them seem to have the nausea that generally comes with feeding bags). I believe a critical part of treating and understanding CF is nutrition. Absorption of nutrition and vitamins is usually low in CF patients; and my friend was no exception. He never had caffeine, high sugar items (ie: candy, slurpees, chocolate, etc.), or chips. What he did always have was carrots, Gatorade, grapes, cheese strings and jerky. Those happened to be his favourites. And so it bugs me a lot that the teens seem to eat anything they want with no consideration for nutrition. Now maybe because they are hospitalized and on bags it's okay? I don't know except that it stood out to me.

Why is Reality Not Enough?
One thing I continue to struggle with understanding is why reality is not enough for these types of books? Why must authors include more tragic events around our suffering characters? There are no less than 3 MAJOR moments in this book where things are revealed or happen that could easily have been removed and the book would still be tragic and romantic. Just add in any of the discussions or items above instead of those 3 major moments. The need to go 'over the top' is such a Hollywood trait and I hate how it's translated to influence today's fiction. I'd be okay with the same romance story and dynamic between our teens without the 'extra' tragedy. Let the disease itself be awful enough; because in real life it is more than enough to deal with.

I'm sure I'm missing dozens of other things to point out and I would encourage everyone with interest to read more about CF from reliable health sites. There are also lots of sites, stories and social media written by first-hand CF sufferers that will be far more meaningful than my thoughts and comments.
Unfortunately I have my doubts that the movie will be any better. Based on the trailer I've seen it might be worse. While I do appreciate that a book was written where the teens have CF. I just wish it was a little more on par with real life. This doesn't seem like too much to ask does it?

Finally let me recommend a book that two years ago made me think of Scott (even though it's not CF related). It's a contemporary teen story about death and loss. The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord is a realistic and moving look at death. It made me laugh, cry and cry some more; and not in a glossy, hyped or over the top way. Instead Lord addresses the intricacies and messiness of mortality in a genuine and heartwarming way. I'd really like to see more realistic contemporary stories like Lord wrote. I wish Lippincott had captured more of the reality and less of the teen puppy romance.

Review dedicated to my friend Scott. You are never forgotten my friend and always cherished. May the notes of your clarinet be clear and constant, always. ~Mel

Follow me on Goodreads...

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

1 comment:

Leonore Winterer said...

Without having read the book, I can fully understand all the issues you've been having with it. If you chose a disease as a driving plot device, you should at least a) do your research and b) actually use that research to deal with the topic in a realistic, believable way. I can understand how movies always soft-paint everything - it's just like how characters in movies never seem to need to use the bathroom - but I expect more from a book. Writing offers so many possibilities to touch on subjects without going into every gruesome detail, if you don't want to write three pages about mucus! Surely you, having directly encountered the disease in question, will notice more of these details, but it sounds like it still wouldn't have been 'enough' for an average reader, also.
I was interested in this book when reading the blurb because it reminded me of Rowan Coleman's "We are all made of stars" (although there, the lung-infected teen is more of a side character, and I'm not sure whether it was CF or something else), and, although very emotional, it certainly didn't feel like as much of a purposefully tear jerker!