All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

on December 30, 2010

Alice Howland is a 49yo Harvard professor. She’s married to a brilliant scientist (also a Harvard professor and they’ve co-authored a book together) and has three grown up children. One is a lawyer, one is in medical school studying to become a surgeon with a specialty in cardiothoracics and the youngest is the family ‘black sheep’ working in Starbucks out in LA while taking acting classes. Alice is worried about her youngest daughter not going to college, and tries to pressure her, very vocal about the fact that a good education opens doors. Alice is a gifted speaker, often taking part in conferences and leading forums and it’s obvious she’s very respected in her field.

She begins by forgetting small things. It’s not until one day, while going for a run around Harvard Square, where she has lived and worked for nearly twenty years, that she totally forgets where she is. She has no idea, looking at her surroundings, where she is or how to get home. She walks aimlessly, growing in panic until something finally clicks and all of a sudden she recognises her surroundings. It’s enough to frighten her into going to see her doctor, who refers her for an MRI and various other tests, all of which come back clean. When the memory lapses keep happening and she cannot complete a simple test set for her by a neurologist, the answer is suddenly clear: Alice has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

This is the term used for diagnosis in patients under 65. Alice, having just turned 50, is stunned. How could she possibly have Alzheimer’s? It’s a disease one associates with elderly residents of nursing homes, not women her age, in her profession. At first she rejects the diagnosis, as does her husband, but then Alice tests positive for one of the three genetic cursors and they can deny no longer. She starts taking several medications to slow down the rate at which her brain will deteriorate and her husband starts looking into clinical trials, trying desperately to find the one thing that may just make a difference. Alice also has to tell her children of her diagnosis and of the fact that she has tested positive to one of the genetic mutations, which means that each of her children have a 50% chance of also inheriting that.

The entire novel is told through Alice’s eyes, all the way to the end. We’re with her from the beginning, when she first notices her little forgetful things, like not knowing what an item on her to-do list means, or after spending an hour brushing up on what lecture she is giving in an hours time, she reaches the lecture hall and suddenly has absolutely no idea what lecture she is to teach, the first time she doesn’t recognise one of her children and then right at the end, when she is aware of almost nothing around her.

Still Alice, despite its riveting sounding plot, was a little hard to sink my teeth into at first. I found Alice a bit unlikable, always focused on her career and her academic importance as the author rammed home that was how she defined herself. I found her badgering of her youngest daughter to go to a college a bit infuriating and her anger at her husband for his supporting their youngest daughter even more so.

As I got further into the book, I began to enjoy it more. It’s told from Alice’s point of view from beginning to end. It’s a powerful way to write the novel, because it really impacts on you exactly how Alice is feeling and how she is declining. However you never see anyone else’s perception of Alice and her disease and Alice is very clever at hiding just how much she is forgetting, so it’s possible that she’s even worse off than we, the readers, realise. Her neurologist tells her at her first appointment that she has to bring someone else with her to every appointment, because she may not be the best indication of how things are going for herself. And it’s something that is reflected throughout the book.

One detraction from the novel was Alice’s husband. His rejection of her diagnosis I could fully believe, I thought it was quite a realistic reaction, and his obsessive search for a cure, or some miracle clinical trial, desperately trying to get back the woman he married. He’s an academic too, a scientist, even more devoted to his work that Alice is. In the beginning, Alice laments how little time they spend together now, and how nice it would be if they were able to spend a little more time. Alice is diagnosed just before the northern hemisphere summer and at the end of that year, they both have a sabbatical year coming up. Alice finds that as the one thing to look forward to after her diagnosis, so that they can spend some time together – perhaps the last year they will spend together before her disease claims her so much that she doesn’t even recognise him. Alice’s husband intends on cancelling his sabbatical year and taking some position offered to him, and moving Alice to New York and hiring a nurse to look after her. I thought this was incredibly callous. Surely no position could be worth giving up the probable last year you’ll have with your wife. At the same age as Alice, 50, he has plenty of time to further his career. He doesn’t have plenty of time to spend with his wife.

Genova self-published this novel herself and it remained so for a year until bought by Simon & Schuster. She’s a neuroscientist who studied at Harvard and has also studied the method of acting Alice’s youngest daughter is taking in the novel. She clearly writes what she knows, and the book is well researched and realistically presented. It’s a very thought provoking read – the kind that makes you stop every couple of pages and think about what you might do if it were you or someone you knew. My parents are only a couple of years older than Alice is and I can’t imagine one of them being diagnosed, me possibly finding out I carry the genetic mutation and then having to face then possibly having passed that genetic mutation onto my son. They’re all things Alice’s children have to consider. Despite this, I didn’t find myself as emotionally invested as I expected to be. I’m not sure if it’s simply because I couldn’t relate that well to Alice and her family – academics mostly, and driven people who seem to define themselves wholly by their degrees and success – or if the writing was well done, but just a bit too clinical for my liking.

Still a really enjoyable read, just not quite what I was expecting.


Book # 126 of 2010

2 responses to “Still Alice – Lisa Genova

  1. Hi! I’m passing on the Stylish Blogger Award to you. If you don’t do awards, that’s ok. I just wanted you to know I enjoy your blog. If you do, you can visit me at Tribute Books Mama to find out what to do for the award.

    Happy New Year!
    Mary Ann

    • Kitty Brown says:

      Hi Mary Ann…nto sure if you are the sae Mary Anne that I knew from Rondeau (well actually you lived in Erie Beach Ontario canada) My name is Kitty Kennedy (brown now)

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