Saturday, June 20, 2009

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

The June book selection for my personal book club, Chapter Chat, was Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Genova has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and she is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer's Association. So it is not surprising that her first novel would be a book dealing with a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer's disease. Write what you know, right? Apparently, Genova had a very difficult time finding a publisher for her novel and decided to self-publish it. That turned out to be a brilliant decision. She was eventually picked up by Simon and Schuster and her book is getting respectable reviews. Rightfully so.

Still Alice tells the absolutely heartbreaking story of Alice Howland, a 50 year old Harvard professor of linguistics and psychology, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Genova takes the risky and novel approach of telling the story from Alice's point of view - another brilliant decision on her part. The story is all the more poignant and devastating seen through Alice's eyes as she first comes to terms with her diagnosis and then has to deal with her declining cognitive abilities. The reader is able to identify and empathize with Alice as her disease progresses. We feel her frustration, fear and loneliness as her life is stripped away from her layer by layer. At one point she confides in her husband, John, that she misses herself. I can't even imagine the devastation. In the words of the author, "[Still Alice is] about identity and living a life that matters and about what a crisis does to relationships."

I loved the character of Alice. She was capable and strong and tried her very best to take control of her situation as best she could. She did everything she could to try to slow the progress of this disease. She devised clever ways of making life easier for herself. She even started a support group for other people with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. I identified with Alice in all these ways. I can picture myself doing exactly the same thing if I were in this (or a similar) situation. Alice is a real take charge kind of person. She isn't someone who wallows in self-pity or asks Why Me? I am the same way.

I do think there are some "problems" with this book, however. If you know someone suffering from Alzheimer's Disease (which is the case for one of our book club members), you may find the depiction of Alice's symptoms to be somewhat sugar-coated. Missing from Genova's books is the anger and lashing out that many Alzheimer's suffers experience. Also, Alice's diagnosis is made quickly and without the years of misdiagnosis which is typical in the case of Alzheimer's Disease. And perhaps most problematic, is the way in which Alice is so accepting of her diagnosis. She is never in denial. Even though she has plenty of opportunity to dismiss her symptoms as simple signs of fatigue, stress or possibly depression. According to those who are more familar with Alzheimer's Disease, this does not ring true. Perhaps Genova left some of this out for the purposes of keeping the book to a manageable length. For the average reader, I don't think that these issues will detract from the enjoyment of this book. For someone with Alzheimer's Disease or someone who knows someone with Alzheimer's Disease, this book may not ring true.

I would give Still Alice 3 STARS (I liked it).

Image from Google Images

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