• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad

Jaouad offers a powerful, introspective memoir about coping with leukemia and its accompanying emotions, fears, and side effects--along with a road-trip journey following her New York Times column about her illness: Life, Interrupted.

I used to think healing meant ridding the body and the heart of anything that hurt. It meant putting your pain behind you, leaving it in the past. But I'm learning that's not how it works. Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn't there or allowing it to hijack your days.

Suleika Jaouad had just graduated from college to pursue her career dreams of becoming a journalist. She was in love, she was living in Paris, and her future was bright.

But Jaouad had developed a strange itch in her foot that spread. She was feeling fatigue that she just couldn't shake, no matter how many hours-long naps she fell into. After long months of mystery and suffering and tests that went nowhere, she finally received a diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia and a rare blood disorder, myelodysplastic syndrome. She had a 35-percent survival rate.

Jaouad spent four years constantly fearing for her life; undergoing various procedures; living with intense pain; experiencing extreme lows, moments of desperate hope, and a few highs; being ill and in love, then ending her long-term relationship, and writing a New York Times column about her experience. She emerged from spending years with her head down, fighting to survive, to realize that she needed to figure out how she wanted to live the rest of her days.

"...why does everything need to be so dang complicated? Maybe it's okay to not have the answers right now."

I admit that I felt loyalty to her boyfriend "Will," who saw her through years of significant difficulties due to cancer, treatment, and side effects, a bone marrow transplant, and dedicated caregiving after her return home. The couple breaks up when the health struggles are largely over. When Suleika's beloved father later admits to her that he doesn't know if he would have done the same selfless work in Will's position and in his twenties, Suleika seems to consider seriously--for the first time?--whether she had asked too much of Will.

But by then, she is dating a new boyfriend, a musician named Jon (until reading his name in the dedication, I missed that this was Jon Batiste, the longtime band leader and music director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as well as the composer and performer for many songs for the movie Soul).

Along with her adopted mutt Oscar, Jaouad embarked on a 100-day, 15,000-mile trip around the perimeter of the United States, visiting many of the people--until then, strangers--who had written to her during her cancer fight. Some shared wisdom, some showed caring through food, and one memorable acquaintance spoke to her about his life through Plexiglas from death row.

The vast majority of page time in Between Two Kingdoms is spent on Suleika's struggle with her physical disease and its effects on her body and on her emotions, mind, relationships, and interests. She offers hard-won insights and a rollercoaster of feelings, and she expresses her fervent desire to be independent even as she is irritatingly, deeply reliant upon the kindness and care she receives from family and friends. The journey around the country, in comparison, takes up far less space in Jaouad's memoir although it is an interesting bookend to her solo travel to Paris early in the book.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

When I was looking online for an update on the Jon Batiste-Suleika Jaouad situation (they're married), I saw that unfortunately, Jaouad's leukemia returned in the past year, and that she has received another bone marrow transplant.