Today’s book review, of Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer is brought to you by Deb Atwood. If you’d like your book reviewed or to send me a book review of another author’s book, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer
: Mara is a successful lawyer, and devoted wife and mother. Struggling with a devastating illness, she has set herself five days to make the ultimate decision for her family. Scott lives a thousand miles away, and is a foster parent to a troubled eight-year-old. Scott is facing his own five day countdown until his beloved foster son is returned to his biological mother. The two connect through an online forum, and find a friendship to help guide them through the most difficult, and momentous, week of their lives.
- Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 341 pages
- Format: Hardcover
- Source: Purchased
Last month millions of viewers tuned in as terminally ill Brittany Maynard discussed her decision to end her life. Faced with debilitating symptoms, Maynard wanted to die with dignity while she still had the ability to act.
Although it was all too real, it seemed the stuff of fiction.
And so it is the stuff of fiction, in one of those art-imitates-life moments. In her debut novel Five Days Left, author Julie Lawson Timmer presents us with a character in many ways like Brittany Maynard. Young, attractive, devoted to her husband. And dying.
Ironically, it was the humanist writer Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” Timmer has taken this dictum to heart. Her leading character, Mara, suffers from one of the most devastating diseases on earth. She has inherited Huntington’s Disease. The prognosis for Huntington’s is death following loss of muscle control, loss of speech, and loss of brain function.
Faced with the mounting evidence of her decline, Mara promises herself that once a certain threshold is crossed, she will end her life on her next birthday. She doesn’t know what that threshold is, just that she will know when it happens. In the opening chapter, Mara is humiliated when she urinates all over herself in front of horrified onlookers. This becomes Mara’s threshold. There are only five days left until her birthday.
Another leading character also feels the Damocles sword of the five-day deadline.
Scott, a dedicated middle school teacher, loves children. For the past year he and his wife have been fostering a troubled, undernourished eight-year-old boy whose mother is in jail for drug possession, scheduled to be released in five days. In five days Scott’s time as foster dad ends, and Curtis will return to a roach-infested hovel where the cycle of filth and neglect will resume. Like Mara, Scott rails against fate and tries to imagine an alternative outcome.
The plane on which the storylines intersect is an internet site for adoptive / fostering parents called Not Your Father’s Family Forum where Mara and Scott chat and offer encouragement. Scott shares his angst over the looming separation from Curtis as well as his disappointment that his wife is looking forward to it.
As an adoptee and adoptive parent, Mara is a cheerleader and mentor to the forum members, particularly Scott, for whom she feels a special connection. Scott, meanwhile, has no idea that his online supporter is hiding her own pain. He does not know that even as she writes to him, she questions her life-ending decision and wonders what he would think of it.
I found Scott’s storyline less compelling than Mara’s. More than once I caught myself skipping to the next chapter to return to Mara’s life. Initially I was drawn into the foster parent story of Scott and Curtis. Adoption is a special area of interest for me—both in writing and reading—yet somewhere, and I’m not sure where, the Scott/Curtis story became repetitive. Scott didn’t know how he would cope, his wife was looking forward to their new freedom, back and forth. Ultimately, these characters began to feel two-dimensional.
And because every plot point, every encounter, every scene in the novel directly relates to the five days’ impact on both lead characters, I felt the novel was becoming what one of my friends calls “one-note,” or what author Charles Baxter termed “overparented” when “all the arrows point in one direction” (29). At the same time that I read Five Days Left, I was also reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. I couldn’t help wondering, perhaps unfairly, what Lahiri would have done with Timmer’s premise and characters, how Lahiri might have followed the arrows outward into other lives and other paths.
After I shared these thoughts with writing buddy Dan, he said, “Did you like the book?” Then I’d talk some more about Mara’s struggles and how I started cheating the Scott story by skipping ahead to find out what Mara was up to. Then Dan said again, “But did you like the book?”
I realized I had no certain answer. Am I glad I read the book? Yes, there was much to think about and talk about—life and death, no less. Did I enjoy it? I enjoyed much of it. I greatly admire the author’s skill in rendering Mara’s humanity in the face of inhumane fate. I also thought the ending worked perfectly in a French Lieutenant’s Woman sort of way. The resolution of Mara’s story would be diminished without the complement of Scott’s resolution.
Author Timmer beautifully depicts the struggles of Mara’s life and the strength with which she faces them. Every day brings a new life challenge and a new little death as Mara understands she can never forestall what fate and her body have determined. Each moment in Mara’s search for self the author renders in meticulous and heart-wrenching detail until at the end of five tension-filled days, we see what Mara is made of. Of that, Kurt Vonnegut would be proud.
Thank you, Deb. An interesting story and great review.
Deb holds an MFA and resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and rescue dog Nala. Her time-slip novel Moonlight Dancer was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas. Deb’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies.
Deb’s interests include ghost fiction, Korean culture, quilting, and, of course, reading.
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