Like many young people with IBD, I felt invisible when I was first diagnosed. My disease was not for polite company, and I saw nothing about my experience in movies or TV or books. The fear that I might be unspeakable was crushing.
That was twenty years ago; since then, a few books, films, TV shows have tried to capture the experience of the young and sick, but in ways that tend to trivialize what young people go through. That is not what I was looking for.
Two Girls Staring At The Ceiling, on the other hand, is what I was looking for. The two girls are teenagers, the ceiling is a hospital room, and the book tells their story. It might be the best novel about youth and illness I’ve ever read.
The book follows Chess, a high school student admitted to the hospital with terrible stomach pains and diarrhea. Chess is diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in the course of her hospital stay, and she shares her hospital room with Shannon, a slightly older girl who also has Crohn’s.
Although they share a diagnosis, Shannon and Chess are very different patients. Chess is timid and pliant; Shannon is angry and abrasive. As Chess settles into her diagnosis, she and Shannon commiserate over prednisone and terrible food and the terror of adult life stained with chronic illness. There is some mild profanity, but the book is not graphic about bodily functions. While the details of Crohn’s may be new, much of the story will be familiar to anyone with hospital experience.
Two Girls is exceptionally well-crafted. I don’t just mean well-written, although it is; I mean the way the book is constructed very much helps the story. It is billed as a ‘novel-in-verse’, but a better description might be ‘stream of consciousness’: the poetic style captures perfectly the blurry, bleary thoughts of a hospital patient.
The author also uses a creative typographical trick, separating the story into two columns, one for each of the girls; it feels more like a play, with an explicit sense of place that straight prose would lack, and makes for a fun and very quick read (many pages have only one column).
I have Crohn’s, so Two Girls has obvious resonance for me, and it would have been a huge help twenty years ago when I was struggling with my diagnosis. It also would have been extremely helpful for my parents and many other people in my life who also had to come to terms with my disease.
That said, the reader I am now is a bit different from the reader I was twenty years ago. Indeed, Two Girls was not written with me in mind; I picked it up mainly because the author said that the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America would not endorse it (for the profanity, apparently). Still, I enjoyed the book much more than I expected.
As an older reader, I did have one serious qualm with the book: there is a third bed in the room Chess and Shannon share, and this bed is occupied by older women with unnamed diseases (the third patient changes halfway through the book). The older women serve mostly for comic relief, but it seemed like a lost opportunity. I wish the author had done more with these women, or omitted them altogether. Most hospital rooms, after all, have only two beds — if not just one.
I also found Two Girls a little too cheerful with respect to death and disability. For many people, Crohn’s is a disabling condition that wrecks their lives. For some, Crohn’s kills them. But I understand why a book intended for teenagers is perhaps delicate on those facets of the disease, so this is a minor quibble.
None of that kept me — nor should it keep you — from enjoying this book. If you are sick and want a book that speaks to your suffering, if you want a book to help your friends and family understand what you are going through: find a copy of Two Girls Staring At The Ceiling.
It is an excellent depiction of youth and illness, and a book that will help many, many people.