Review: Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank

Goodreads summary: 

This novel-in-verse—at once literary and emotionally gripping—follows the unfolding friendship between two very different teenage girls who share a hospital room and an illness.

Chess, the narrator, is sick, but with what exactly, she isn’t sure. And to make matters worse, she must share a hospital room with Shannon, her polar opposite. Where Chess is polite, Shannon is rude. Where Chess tolerates pain silently, Shannon screams bloody murder. Where Chess seems to be getting slowly better, Shannon seems to be getting worse. How these teenagers become friends, helping each other come to terms with their illness, makes for a dramatic and deeply moving read. 


An intense and raw narrative inspired by the author’s experience with Crohn’s Disease, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Two Girls uses verse to bring home the emotion and pain these two girls, Chess and Shannon, are enduring. But between the tubes and the pain, alongside emergency surgery and endless hospital days, Chess and Shannon become friends.

Their friendship is a direct-talking relationship, brought on initially by steroids and proximity. The verse format reduces the telling to virtually zero – everything is shown. At no point does the narrator have to intervene to assure us that Chess and Shannon are friends now, because we know. We know from Chess’ reaction when Shannon vanishes from their room without explanation, and from their conversations through the hospital curtain that help them both to come to terms with their diagnosis. I can imagine it was a challenge to write so consistently, so directly, but Lucy Frank pulls it off with great skill and passion.

Doctor’s voice too fast,
too smooth,
too jolly, hearty,
way too close…
I don’t know
this hard and tough
Don’t speak Disease.

The powerful use of language requires every single word to pull its weight. It really pushes the boundaries of fiction’s potential to affect readers in so many difference ways.

Two Girls is formatted with a line down the middle of the page. Chess’ parts go on the left, Shannon’s on the right, and the line down the middle is the hospital curtain between them. There’s very little physical description of the characters or their surroundings, but the page itself is furnished as their hospital room is, which I thought was so clever. It gave me an image of their room that wasn’t explicitly written on the page – it’s a lesson in thinking through the actual shape your narrative takes on the page.

This was such an impactful story for me, because chronic and potentially incapacitating diseases are so rarely depicted in fiction. Chess and Shannon keep firm grasps on the normality they dream of going back to, but it’s the way that they influence each other in how they deal with their Crohn’s Disease which is the central thread of this novel. Shannon encourages Chess to speak up, to voice her rage and refuse to let people pity or ignore her. Chess encourages Shannon to listen, and to hope. And they do it without explicitly instructing one another. I loved watching their characters develop in response to each other. Their voices are so individual, but there is no doubt that they are both fundamentally altered by this friendship of circumstance.

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank was published by Schwartz & Wade in August 2014. You can order it from Waterstones here, or Amazon here.

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