Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: "Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling" by Lucy Frank

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling

From what I've seen (and read), novels written as free verse poetry are difficult to write well. I find that as a reader, I think they're most effective when used in cases where there's nothing to say in a given situation: no words, just feelings. Effective free verse novels seem to start with the immediate aftermath of a trauma, and end when the protagonist is able to establish a vocabulary to talk about what took place, starting the healing process.

Lucy Frank follows this effective formula while adding her own unique details and twists to the story of teenage struggle depicted in Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling. This isn't my usual brand of fiction, but I'm reviewing it here because it deals with a sensitive, painful, and incredibly important issue that is still taboo for many young people: teenage chronic illness.

Chess has a charmed life. She's beautiful, she has two amazing best friends, and is leaving soon to start her college search. Plus there's the cute, smart, funny guy who works at Sugar Snap Farm and who seems to return her romantic interest. But Chess is holding something back, a deep personal secret, hidden even from herself. And the magical night when another part of her life is supposed to begin, her secret is revealed instead. Unable to ignore it any more, Chess finds herself on her back in a hospital bed, paralyzed by the fear of putting a name to her condition and how it will impact her life from now on.

Chess tackles her issues, sometimes unwillingly, largely with the unorthodox support of her hospital roommate, Shannon. Shannon's background is the complete opposite of Chess's seemingly perfect life, but they have both had their plans changed by the same medical condition. Shannon's quirky, irreverent, vulgar personality is tempered by Chess's fear and compassion, and the two of them prove to be perfect foils for one another as they work to stay strong and get their lives back on track.

In addition to being written in prose, Frank's book employs a physical page format that represents the hospital environment: a line down the center of the page represents the curtain between Chess's and Shannon's beds. The location of the words on the page indicates where something is happening and who is speaking. When the curtain is open or when Chess leaves the room, the line disappears. The author has even included a little guide at the beginning of the book on how to interpret this format, which is not only awfully considerate but allows the reader to start appreciating and enjoying the intended reading experience from the very beginning instead of puzzling through a "frustration period" of figuring out the format.

Chess's swirling thoughts of fear, embarrassment, and incredulity at her own situation are very poignantly expressed by deliberate language and strong imagery in the prose. The scared, overwhelming periods from Chess in particular, the parts that haunt her or that she tries to block out, are described in terms of "the night beetles," referring to a childhood memory of hers. The dread of unwanted thoughts is perfectly compared to the click and rattle of beetles, the clawing feeling of tiny legs coming over her in a wave. Several descriptions like that actually gave me goosebumps as I was reading.

And yet despite the visceral, awful issues through which both Chess and Shannon are struggling, the book ends on a hopeful note. It's not an 'I'll get through this no matter what!' kind of ending, where the trauma is over and everything is perfect again, but rather a more realistic 'I'll get through this because I don't have any other option' conclusion. Don't get me wrong, it's still very sweet and endearing. I even wish the little glimpse into the characters down the road had been longer than twelve lines, but Frank really does make every one of those words count.

The teenage years are normally full of terrifying, incredible, and dramatic changes on so many levels. In the struggle to just be normal amid all that, something like the diagnosis of a chronic disease can seem like the end of the world. It's a cruel time in life to be saddled with what's often perceived as another weakness. But this touching novel can help all of us to better understand both sides of the issue: the person diagnosed and the people around them. Everybody has something abnormal about them after all, and Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank helps to start breaking down stereotypes and discussion barriers about chronic illness and teens. It will be available in August of this year at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

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