If you’re reading a YA novel, you’re probably looking for an emotional journey. That’s one of the conventions of the genre. It’s easily the best convention of the genre.
If you’re reading a YA novel about sick kids, you’re probably looking for an emotional journey that will obliterate you and crush your heart into a thousand pieces. I mean, if you aren’t looking for it, it will find you anyways. It always does.
Five Feet Apart is told in alternating chapters by Stella Grant and Will Newman, two cystic fibrosis patients. Stella is in the hospital for a tune up/treatment of an infection. Will is in the hospital or a clinical trial to treat B. Cepacia, a bacterial infection that is considered lethal and incurable when contracted by CFers (the colloquial term used by most folks with CF).
Stella is organized, prepared, cautious, and logical. In the wake of her sister’s death and her parent’s subsequent divorce, she is careful and calculating. She designed an app to track her medication and treatments and she obsesses over her regimen of pills, breathing treatments, and g-tube feeds. She’s a YouTube sensation, making videos about her experiences with CF and providing a little bit of information to the masses.
Will, on the other hand, is messy. He resents and rejects his treatments. He feels that his mother- desperately enrolling him in any clinical trial that might help him, moving him around the world to any hospital that offers a better prognosis to extend his short life- is forcing him to live a miserable life only for the purpose of delaying his inevitable death.
When they meet, Will is crass and crude and harsh. Stella is immediately frustrated by his attitude and his choices. Being the “control freak” (for lack of better phrasing) that she is, Stella cannot get Will and his noncompliance out of her head. She convinces him to adhere to his regimen in exchange for an opportunity to draw her, but it takes a little bit of extra coaching on her part to get him to actually follow his treatment plan.
Stella and Will grow closer as they video chat for their treatments, but because of safety guidelines and vigilant hospital staff, their friendship (or perhaps budding relationship? Flirtation?) seems doomed. When Stella has an emergent surgery to replace her infected g-tube, a dedicated respiratory therapist named Barb catches Will escaping from her pre-op room and manages to scare him into staying away from Stella.
When Will tries to distance himself from Stella, she is angry and hurt. Poe, her best friend since childhood (also a CFer, also inpatient in the hospital for treatment of bronchitis) tries to remind her of the reality she’s facing, but it just tears a rip in the fabric of their friendship.
After time passes, Poe and Stella reconcile over milkshakes and their shared fear of leaving people they love reeling when they meet their inevitable end.
As Will discovers his will to live (no pun intended), Stella’s thinking becomes more radical- she realizes that she wants to live, not just live. She took all of the right steps and she still needed surgery that put her in harm’s way. It’s like each of their personal pendulums swung the other direction, paths crossing only briefly as they barreled into a new frame of mind.
Throughout the novel there is an emphasis on the importance of staying six feet apart- this is because it has been studied and proven time and time again (and boy, is the average person suddenly aware of how important those six feet are for infection prevention…) that six feet is the “magic number” at which the risk of contracting an infection is reduced significantly. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll wonder the entire book why it is called “Five Feet Apart” when CFers are supposed to stay six feet apart to prevent cross-contamination. But after Stella’s big “break through,” she reclaims one of those six feet and decides that she will spend her time with Will five feet apart.
Unfortunately, unspeakable tragedy strikes. When Stella realizes that her best friend went his entire life without touching her to protect himself, yet still died and left his loved ones broken and devastated, it is the push she needs (or maybe would have been better off without…) to make a change in her life. She finds Will who is struggling to grasp his own mortality in the face of loss, and they set off to see the lights in the distance.
They break all of the rules an escape into closeness, reveling in the freedom of the outdoors and each other’s presence.
Life is almost taken from them, and as a continuation of the series of realizations the characters have had throughout the novel propels them forward, Will saves Stella’s life. Twice, in two very different ways.
The end of this book took my heart from my chest and stomped all over it. The idea of losing the person you love in that way makes my heart ache.
Five Feet Apart is an intriguing tale about disability, mortality, love, and loss. (And yes, I know exactly how cliché that is. If you’re not into clichés, this book may not be for you.)
There’s something poetic about the loss of love in this novel, something that makes it almost bearable to read words that would ordinarily be unbearable. And perhaps that’s this book’s greatest strength.
I gave Five Feet Apart five stars on goodreads:
Five Feet Apart is a compelling and lovely story that applies an emotional journey (ala YA novel) to some of the more cliché tropes of romance genre, and it does so successfully and wonderfully. This book will tear your heart from your very chest, but you probably expected that when you heard it was YA novel about Cystic Fibrosis. There’s love and loss, but also a lot of realizations.