Still Alice by Lisa Genova, published February 2012 by Pocket Books.
Read: June 2015
Get It Now: Wordery
Goodreads Synopsis: When Alice finds herself in the rapidly downward spiral of Alzheimer’s Disease she is just 50 years old. A university professor, wife, and mother of three, she still has books to write, places to see, grandchildren to meet. But when she can’t remember how to make her famous Christmas pudding, when she gets lost in her own back yard, when she fails to recognise her actress daughter after a superb performance, she comes up with a plan. But can she see it through? Should she see it through? Losing her yesterdays, living for each day, her short-term memory is hanging on by a couple of frayed threads. But she is still Alice.
The premise of this novel is made clear from the outset, it’s obviously supposed to be a highly emotional, tear-jerker read (spoiler alert – it was), so you may wonder why I’d want to read it. Strangely, part of me enjoys reading books about medical conditions (“enjoys” doesn’t feel like quite the right word, but I’m assuming you’ll catch my drift). There’s a certain insight, and empathy, that comes from reading books that focus on a character’s struggles as they face a difficult, and often life-threatening, illness. Sometimes, they can even make you feel better, rather than worse, as you realise there are so many people out there facing worse demons than you are. I also enjoy them, because often the books will touch on emotions or scenarios that resonate with me on a personal level. My mum suffered a brain haemorrhage as the result of an aneurysm around 8 years ago, and though she doesn’t suffer specifically from Alzheimer’s, she has suffered a brain injury that has a plethora of symptoms and side effects, which has impacted not only on her life, but on the lives of my whole family. Often, rather than being a trigger (my anxiety started when mum took ill), I find novels like this almost comforting.
The author of this novel is a neuroscientist who, I believe, originally self-published Still Alice to raise awareness of the disease and to raise money for charitable organisations. Still Alice was her debut novel, and she has since gone on to write more books, all of which focus on neurological disorders. Genova’s medical background is clear throughout this read, not only is the text interspersed with descriptions of medical conditions and treatments, but our main character, Alice, is also a very respected and intelligent professor of cognitive psychology, which allows Genova to flex her medical muscles further through her. I didn’t think there was too much medical jargon in the text, in fact, usually I’m in the-more-the-merrier camp. I like the sense that the author is speaking with authority on the subject, and the geeky side of me just enjoys learning about the conditions. WebMD is my best friend, and I’m pretty sure if I could have a do-over, I’d try to be a Doctor.
Even though this novel has lots of great medical information, it’s not a “boring” medical journal, far from it. Genova does an excellent job of depicting the emotional effects of the disease, not only on its victim, but on Alice’s family and friends. The disease itself begins to feel like a parasitic character – it is overwhelming at times, its presence daunting, because it is invisible but its effects are strongly felt and inevitable. It is a cruel disease – stripping away your achievements, your identity, your loved ones, and your memories – the very essence of who you are. Although it shouldn’t, Alice’s intelligence and achievements make her mental decline all the more poignant and sad.
At one point in the novel, Alice wishes she had cancer instead. While this does seem shocking, her explanation reveals more about the sad truth that surrounds Alzhiemer’s – with cancer she would have something to fight, there are treatments, her family, friends and colleagues could rally behind her and consider it noble. With Alzhiemer’s, there was nothing to do but wait, and witness the awkwardness, confusion and pity of those around her. I found Alice’s husband to be a particularly difficult character in this regard, he frustrated me, and I found it hard to connect with him at all because of his actions.
“I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted. This disease will not be bargained with.”
“Even then, more than a year earlier, there were neurons in her head, not far from her ears, that were being strangled to death, too quietly for her to hear them.”
“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”
Have you read Still Alice, or seen the movie adaptation? I plan to watch it soon! Let me know your thoughts in the comments.