by Lisa Genova
Alice Howland is an intelligent, happily married 50-year-old Harvard linguistics professor with a full and accomplished life. But seven pages into this book, the reader gets the first inkling that something is wrong in this near-perfect picture. Alice eventually learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the rest of the book takes us all down the rabbit hole of this disease.
While Alice is actually a composite based on the author’s interviews with Alzheimer’s patients, the confusion and pain she and her family experience are no less real. I read this book while living on Cape Cod — where much of the book takes place and where the author lives — and while caring for my mother, who suffered from dementia. While dementia looked very different in my 92-year-old mother than it did in Alice, this book gave me insight into my mother’s frustrations, and it gave me even more compassion for what it might be like inside her mind. For me, that was the gift I got from reading this book.
Alice and her family react to her symptoms and, later, her diagnosis with the usual denials: “Everyone forgets things now and then….” “I’m just having a really bad day….” “Stress can do this to you….” Eventually they accept her diagnosis, playing out family dramas that existed long before the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s took root in Alice’s brain.
While the subject matter isn’t exactly uplifting, Alice’s determination and spirit keep the book from being depressing and melodramatic. She and her family adapt to this disease, which affects the family as much as it does the patient.
As she moves through the advancing phases, Alice at one point challenges herself to summon enough of her formerly brilliant mind to address an Alzheimer’s Association conference in Boston.
“I am a wife, mother and friend, and soon to be a grandmother,” she tells the attendees. “I still feel, understand, and am worthy of the love and joy in those relationships. My brain no longer works well, but I use my ears for unconditional listening, my shoulders for crying on, and my arms for hugging others….I am not someone dying. I am someone living with dementia.
“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment.” Ironically, Alzheimer’s gives its sufferers what so many without the disease are searching for: the ability to live moment to moment, without regretting the past or fearing the future.
The film version of Still Alice opens nationwide (and at the Los Gatos Theatre) Jan. 30, but there’s still time to read the book before seeing it. Even if you have no personal connection to Alzheimer’s disease, Lisa Genova’s characters will make you care about them. If you like her writing, check out her other books (Left Neglected, Love, Anthony, and the soon-to-be-released Inside the O’Briens). All are novels that center around people with brain disorders, a natural topic for Genova, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and a degree in bio-psychology.
– review by Deborah