Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad

Between Two Kingdoms tells two stories. The first is Suleika Jaouad’s story of getting sick with a particularly nasty form of cancer when she was in her early 20s — so early, in fact, that she had not launched on a career or a relationship or really figured out anything about her life at all, before she was hit with the possibility of that life ending.

She didn’t die, but the life she expected to life in her 20s was taken from her almost as effectively as if she had died. The years she expected to spend travelling, establishing a career, having fun with friends, falling in love, were replaced by lengthy hospital stays, brutal rounds of treatment, a bone marrow transplant, cycles of remission and relapse, bonds formed with fellow young cancer patients who, one by one, died.

Throughout these years, in addition to the support of her parents (and her brother, who provided the bone marrow transplant), Jaouad had one unwavering constant: her boyfriend Will. (That’s the name she gives him in the book; ten seconds of googling will tell you his real name, because Jaouad wrote and was interviewed about her cancer experience a lot while it was happening). She and Will had a whirlwind romance and had barely even cemented their status as a couple when she got her diagnosis, so his role as caregiver and hers as patient were baked into their pairing from the beginning. Throughout this first part of the story, people are amazed at how devoted, how loving, how dedicated Will is to Suleika throughout all her suffering.

Anyone who knows a little about human beings should not be surprised at the twist in the story where the relationship falls apart just as Suleika is finally starting to get a bit better: these are two young people in their 20s who have been together for several years, but have never been together as a healthy pair of equals, only as a caregiver and a sick person. Suleika’s recovery, her breakup with Will, and her discovery that living as a person without cancer is not as simple as flicking a switch back to the person she used to be, all set the stage for the second part of the book, in which this young woman who has never learned to drive and barely ever lived indepedently sets off on a cross-country odyssey with a van, a dog, and a list of strangers she’s corresponded with but never met.

I found this book to be a thoughtful and insightful exploration of what it’s like to be a young cancer patient and how hard it is to move on from that trauma.

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