Twenty-two-year-old Princeton grad Suleika Jaouad was working as a paralegal in Paris when symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia sent her home to Saratoga Springs, New York, to live with her Swiss-born mother, an artist, and her Tunisian-born father, a French professor at Skidmore College. Raised to roam the globe, Jaouad found that her world had suddenly shrunk to a hospital room at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she underwent a stem cell transplant and other grueling treatments, which she began chronicling in a New York Times column called “Life Interrupted.” Her engrossing memoir, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted, paints a more complete portrait of her experiences during and after treatment.
Jaouad was supported by her parents and a new boyfriend, who put his life on hold for several years to care for her. The ups and downs of their relationship eventually became fraught. She was also buoyed by other cancer patients her own age, including two gifted, beloved friends, an artist and a poet. As she relates these stories, her honest and reflective voice spares no one, not even herself.
Later Jaouad was stunned to discover that “the hardest part of my cancer treatment was once it was over.” She no longer had her support system, and she felt paralyzed by fear. In an effort to reenter the world after treatment, she set out on a 100-day, 33-state solo pilgrimage to connect with an intriguing array of people who had reached out to her during her illness, including a California mother who had lost her adult son to suicide, a bighearted cook on a Montana ranch and a Louisiana death row inmate named Lil’ GQ. She learned valuable, unexpected lessons from all.
Jaouad’s cancer treatment narrative and travelogue are equally compelling as she deftly mixes moments of grief, anger and despair with joy, gratitude and hefty doses of self-deprecating humor. For instance, as a brand-new driver, the first thing she did when setting out on her journey was drive the wrong way down a New York City street. Not long afterward, she had to look up a YouTube video to help her set up her tent.
Between Two Kingdoms is a thoughtful book from a talented young writer who never sugarcoats or falls prey to false hope. As Jaouad writes, “After you’ve had the ceiling cave in on you—whether through illness or some other catastrophe—you don’t assume structural stability. You must learn to live on the fault lines.” Her message will ring helpful and true to many, regardless of the challenges they face.