When Suleika Jaouad was only twenty-two years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she was told that she had only a thirty-five percent chance of survival. It began with a maddening itch on her legs shortly after she moved to Paris to take a job. She was flown back to New York, and spent the next few years in and out of hospitals, enduring multiple bouts of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. In the midst of this, she pitched a column to the New York Times about her struggles with her illness. The column, Life Interrupted (whose film version won an Emmy award), attracted a multitude of readers, many of whom wrote to her detailing their own life-and-death struggles with illness. After Jaouad survived against all odds, she decided to reconnect with life by making a cross-country road trip to visit some of the pen-friends who had supported her in her illness.
To be honest, I picked up the book because I thought that it focused on her road journey, and I love memoirs about road trips. However, at least the first three-quarters of the book tell of her gradually worsening illness; her struggle to survive; her relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and other cancer patients; and her mental state as she wavered between hope and despair. I don’t know if I would have started the book if I had known how much of it is about sickness and hospitals, but once I got going, I found it very hard to put down. Somehow Jaouad manages to avoid allowing the story to become maudlin or disgusting, despite her frequent setbacks, brushes with death, and descriptions of debilitation. As the first-person narrator, she becomes such a sympathetic character that all you want to do is cheer her on and keep reading to find out what happens next.
In fact, it is the writing that saves her. It allows her to turn an objective and analytical eye on what she is going through, even in the midst of a rollercoaster of emotions. It truly is heartbreaking when doctors announce she has to do another months-long round of chemotherapy after she thought it was all over, when she breaks up with her boyfriend Will after he spends years as her primary caregiver just as it looks like she’s going to make it after all, and when she forms close friendships with other cancer victims and then one by one they die when they are still very young. I feel no shame in admitting that I wept frequently as I read this book, but I have to emphasize that despite its subject matter it is not a tearjerker in the negative sense of the term. The tears are tears of empathy. What Jaouad makes clear throughout her narrative is that there are no easy answers and no quick cures to many of the traumas of life. And even when she is pronounced cured and is able to make her cross-country odyssey, her past illness haunts her. She never knows when it might recur, and after spending several of her young adult years in hospitals and under threat of death, she has a difficult time coping with life and relationships in the outside world.
One of the last people she visits on her tour is a prisoner who has spent much of his adult life on death row in Texas. He was one of the first people to correspond with her when her column appeared in the New York Times. As they write to each other, Jaouad realizes that there is an eerie similarity between being in isolation in a prison cell and being trapped in a dysfunctional body within the four walls of a hospital room.
Don’t be put off by the subject matter of this book. As I mentioned, I had an aversion to reading a memoir set mainly in hospitals before I started it too. However, its spirit rises far above the sordid details of medications, needles, surgeries, bedpans, hair loss, open sores, and struggles to breathe. That’s there too, but despite all of that it is a heartfelt, heartbreaking, inspirational, and illuminating story; it shows us that even in the midst of suffering there are glimmers of beauty. This book is a good example; the author has transcended her pain to create a work of art.