Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer
Five Days Left follows the two stories of Mara and Scott, seemingly unrelated yet deeply intertwined individuals. Mara is a lawyer, wife and mother, whose entire life has been upturned by a Huntington’s Disease (HD) diagnosis. Scott is an English teacher fostering a young boy, who is set to reunite with his birth mother in a few short days. Our insight into the intersection of Mara and Scott’s lives demonstrates the wealth of human experience, its deepest valleys to its highest peaks. And while their lives could not be more different, each of their stories exalts with the common hardship and passion of life. Five Days Left is a spectacular, heart-wrenching novel that can resonate with all readers, and stresses us to appreciate all of life’s facets.
This novel alternates between Mara and Scott, telling their stories in alternating chapters. The two characters never meet in the novel, yet are linked by their membership to an online forum for nontraditional families: Mara’s daughter is adopted, while Scott is currently a foster parent. While their life stories could not be more different, the forum provides an interesting connection between Mara and Scott that again reinforces their shared human experiences.
Mara’s story begins with a promise, an ultimatum she gave herself upon receiving her HD diagnosis–once she felt the disease had reached an unlivable point, she would take her own life. After an incident in the supermarket, Mara decides that she has reached this point and will take her life on her birthday, five days from now. The remainder of the novel is a beautiful, melancholic reflection on Mara’s life. We learn about her studious college days that led her to a prestigious law career, unfortunately cut short by her HD progression. We meet her husband Tom and adopted daughter Laks, as Mara reflects on her memories and immense love for them. We also deeply understand Mara as the days progress. For a high-powered working mother such as herself, HD has challenged Mara’s nature. She desperately avoids asking for help with things like driving or walking, struggling to maintain as much autonomy as possible, until she is forced into corners. HD unfortunately places Mara in several embarrassing public situations as well, such as having to buy adult diapers and collapsing in her daughter’s classroom. For her–someone with incredibly high self esteem and achievement–these events are devastating. However, we see Mara become more content and accepting as her days tick on. She generates a relationship with her taxi driver, Harry, as she loses the ability to drive herself. He drives Mara to watch Laks on the playground, convinces her to allow his help walking to the curb, and eventually shares with her his own complex story. Together, they share moments that showcase life’s little wonders, and ultimately make Mara question her ultimatum. At the end of the novel, Mara is conflicted having spent the last five days noting every blessing, every loved one, and every aspect of her life worth sticking around for. In the end, it is unclear whether she commits to her plan, as we are only left with two harrowingly beautiful suicide notes to Tom and Laks, reflecting on Mara’s love and hope for their future without her.
While Scott’s story is less connected to HD, it is nonetheless just as insightful into familial hardship and perseverance. Scott and his wife Laurie are currently fostering a boy named Curtis, whose mother, LaDania, is in jail for drug abuse. As the story begins, we learn that LaDania will be released in five days’ time, and is returning to claim ownership of Curtis. Quite quickly we see that Scott has developed a strong relationship with Curtis, and dreads the upcoming separation. Over the next few days, we see him struggle to reconcile his love for the boy, while also attempting (and failing) to be as emotional about his own baby on the way. Quite similar to Mara, Scott soaks in every moment of his last days with Curtis, reminiscing on playing driveway basketball, struggling through math homework, and reading Stuart Little before bed. We also learn of Curtis’ rough past with his birth mother, and the living situation Curtis will be returning to shortly, much to Scott’s frustration and disappointment. These feelings are only exacerbated by LaDania’s early release, and her taking Curtis back into custody two days early. During this time, Scott feels lost, while his wife attempts to cheer him up through nursery shopping and date nights. The situation only escalates when LaDania then overdoses the next day, leaving Curtis distraught and parentless. Scott immediately asks Laurie to adopt Curtis, only to be met by fierce anger and chastisement over his disinterest in their own baby. Eventually, however, Laurie agrees, acknowledging that it would have pained her to see both Scott and Curtis lost for the rest of their lives, knowing that her answer would have changed things.
Five Days Left is a celebration of life, in both its darkest and purest forms. It urges each of us to reflect on what it is we are thankful for, and to truly appreciate our loved ones. Most importantly, it demonstrates the universal struggle of livelihood, and encourages perseverance even when life seems to be at rock bottom. Whether it be through an HD diagnosis or losing a foster son, this novel capitalizes on the entirety of the human experience, and is well worth the read.