Originally posted on Goodreads.com.
Five Feet Apart: Dante’s Inferno Canto V in a modern context.
Opening in the hospital room of deuteragonist Stella, who has cystic fibrosis (CF), Five Feet Apart is a YA romance that explores the conflicts of people living with CF and other related diseases. Early in the book Stella meets the other deuteragonist, Will, and she can’t stand him. However, as anyone who’s read Much Ado About Nothing or seen a sitcom where opposites attract knows, this soon changes.
Going back and forth between Stella and Will’s first-person perspectives, Five Feet Apart steadily and subtly shows the two drawing together. One can see throughout the inner conflict each presents to the other: Will’s dark humor and desire to enjoy what life he has challenges Stella’s control-minded focus on staying alive, while Stella’s optimism and love for those in her life challenges Will’s cynical nihilism about the value of staying alive. I especially enjoyed and was impressed with Lippincott’s presentation of Will and Poe; more than once I told the student who had chosen to read the book that the author gets teenage male psychology spot-on.
Marketed as a YA romance that shows the experiences of the terminally ill, Five Feet Apart has a lot of depth. Like Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Stella and Will can never touch, despite their teenage love. The reference to Dante is made explicit in the book’s second chapter, where readers find “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” written on Will’s door. Allusions to other works (eg Stella’s name and untouchability invoke the courtly love tradition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella poems) similarly reveal how Five Feet Apart is self-conscious about the forms and archetypes which it uses.
Despite its tragic elements, it is, at base, a romantic comedy, and it plays with and reinterprets different tropes of the genre to excellent effect. The setting of the hospital, and the constant presence of the characters’ CF and B. cepacia introduce compelling conflicts into the plot. While young women are often taught to be skeptical of (if not to reject as objectification) appeals to their physical beauty, Stella’s condition lends a different element to the topic. As is shown in the book’s opening scene, where her best friends discuss and pick out their bathing suits for their upcoming trip to Cabo, Stella does not have the luxury of taking her physical beauty for granted (cue reference to “ugly duckling/Cinderella” archetype); this adds a special gravity to later scenes where she gets to experience being attractive in Will’s eyes. Similarly, her beauty and personality eventually give Will the desire to stay alive, and her effect humanizes him away from his mask of uncaring nihilism, a la La Belle et La Bete/Beauty and the Beast. Throughout the story Lippincott also shows the conflicts of the surrounding characters, all of whom develop as round and articulate by the end of the novel.
Entertaining for both passive and critical readers, Five Feet Apart is an excellent story that rearticulates established story elements into a modern context, and it’s as deep as one might want to look. The audiobook version by Simon & Schuster is great, as Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill give life to the two narrators to often very humorous and sympathetic effect.