Cystic Fibrosis is a terrible condition, anyone who knows about its effects first-hand are likely some of the bravest souls you will ever meet. Unfortunately, the number of people aware of the disease and understand its diagnosis, symptoms, and various medicinal rituals are far fewer than families of CFers would like. This awareness, be it viral or genetic, can also have a great impact on funding and breakthroughs for a cure. Obscurity, on the other hand, can only make a fatal disease that much deadlier. It’s with these thoughts in mind that Rachel Lippincott has worked to novelize Five Feet Apart before its upcoming cinematic counterpart hits theaters.
Based on the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, Lippincott is successful, mostly in making us aware of how an unforgiving diagnosis and treatment options affect those with the disease, as well as those around them. The attention she pays to the detailed descriptions of Cystic Fibrosis more than makes up for what is essentially a recycled teenage love story.
Though the book does its best to spin a tired trope, all the familiar trappings of a conventional teen romance are present in one form or another. Sure, high school hallways have been swapped out for the wings of a large hallway, but much like the students have the movements of their firm but fair principals down to a science, so do the patients know the habits of the nurses keeping watch over them, which allows them free access to move about whenever they’re not busy with medications.
The patients themselves fit nicely into the stereotypical archetypes we’ve come to expect from a story like this, and while all are battling a serious illness, not much else is different beyond that. There’s Stella, the plucky and attractive young woman who keeps a YouTube blog chronicling her struggles with CF while maintaining a buoyant optimism that suggests she’s going to make it after all. She lives by the book and handles her extended hospital stays with admirable ease, even though she’s quietly dealing with the melodrama of her parents’ separation in addition to all the medications she has to manage.
Naturally, she has her best friend, Poe, to keep her company via FaceTime, and he certainly meets all the best-friend prerequisites of the modern era (i.e. a young gay Latino who comes off as promiscuous but secretly yearns for commitment and always provides Stella with a sense of clarity). If the attempt at including diversity seems somewhat ham-fisted, it’s not near as much as Stella’s romance with bad-boy Will, whose CF prognosis is slightly more dire, allowing him to cultivate his cool, devil may care attitude that Stella is reluctantly attracted to. He is impressively clever and articulate for a boy his age, and thanks to the technology everyone in the story flaunts their access to, he uses Stella’s YouTube channel to learn all about her, thereby stumbling upon the inevitable attraction he feels for her as well.
This story goes exactly the way you think it would. Does Will vow early on never to fall in love, only to eventually fall in love with Stella? Yes, and it goes without saying Stella initially thinks Will is a jerk, but softens her demeanor, even learning to loosen up a bit around him when she notices him beginning to take his medication more seriously, thanks in part to her rigid influence. Naturally, these two start a romance, in spite of the odds against them, setting their minds to figuring out a way to make it all work. The only saving grace of the plot is its ending, which mercifully subverts expectations, though hopefully not too late for casual readers.
If possible, the best advice is to try not to get caught up in the details of Stella and Will’s love affair, and instead focus on the fidelity with which Lippincott describes life with Cystic Fibrosis. It’s eye-opening and almost clinical in the way medications, complications, and the endless string of procedures are discussed, and when you finish reading the novel, you’ll almost certainly find yourself willing to help the cause for finding a cure for CFers everywhere. At the very least, they will have more than gained your sympathy, and that by itself makes it worth reading.
The cynical will call Five Feet Apart an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of works like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and countless others just like it. They wouldn’t be wrong, as we’ll see when the filmed version hits theaters later this year. There’s an enormous genre of YA novels built around the dying-girl plot device, more than you’d think was possible. That said, my hope is those sentiments don’t overshadow what turns out to be a very honest and heart-breaking account of life with a serious and less-than-picturesque disease, thanks mostly to sincere writing from Rachel Lippincott.