Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still AliceAlice Howland - Harvard professor, gifted researcher and lecturer, wife, and mother of three grown children - sets out for a run and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. She has taken the route for years, but nothing looks familiar. She is utterly lost. Medical consults reveal early-onset Alzheimer's. Alice slowly but inevitably loses memory and connection with reality, told from her perspective. She gradually loses the ability to follow a conversational thread, the story line of a book, or to recall information she heard just moments before. Genova's debut shows the disease progression through the reactions of others, as Alice does, so readers feel what she feels - a slowly building terror.

As highly recommended as this book is and as much as I wanted to read it, it took me a good while to muster the courage to actually do it. I was intimidated by the subject because I lived for a year with a family where the elderly grandmother had Alzheimer's, and even though there was much I didn't understand I witnessed first-hand how traumatic her condition was for the entire family. Finally I decided to just go for it, and when the novel was over I sat there for a while, heartbroken, not knowing where to begin thinking back on it like I usually do after finishing a book. There was so much there. There was Alice's love for her family, her bitter-sweet feelings for her husband, her fear of losing herself, of losing all the time she thought she had. There was her husband's pain and the decisions he had to make, her children's fear and strength, the relationships between them all, and the impact of Alice's diagnosis. All this tore at me and demanded attention, all the questions that stemmed from the story being told by a person with Alzheimer's begged to be answered, and I couldn't begin anything else for several days because I was still living in Alice's world, trying to come to terms with a question that resonated with me because reading, books and words are an enormously important part of my life, just like they were for Alice - how does one cope with the knowledge that meaningful reading is no longer possible?
How does the author do this in a volume of less than 300 pages? It's simple, really. Lisa Genova has a gift. She does it with writing like this:
"She sat in the passenger seat and waited for John to say something. But he didn't. He cried the whole way home."
What else does the reader need to understand the depth of feelings, the gravity of the situation? Nothing at all, it's all there in three short sentences.
Another aspect that made the book work is the authenticity of everyday feelings and surroundings. I don't know this for a fact but I think that Ms. Genova is a runner, and I think she has a house somewhere at the beach in New England. I think that she has a passion for the world of academia and a complicated parent-child relationship in her life in one way or another. I think she drew on all those parts of her own life and experiences in crafting Alice's story and through her own familiarity she made the story even more personal than it already is.
I cried while I read this novel. I cried for Alice, for her husband and for their children. I cried for the losses of memories, dignity, conversations and truly meaningful time together. I also laughed through tears because of Alice's irrepressible spirit, intellect and sense of humor that shone through till the very end. This book may not affect you as it did me, there is a lot to be said about timing after all. I thought it was excellent, heartbreaking but truly excellent, and I highly recommend it.

P.S. I have not been able to use the word "thingie" without immediately looking for a more articulate alternative for weeks now. Thought you should know.

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