Still Alice – Lisa Genova


I know I know, I haven’t posted in a while but trust me I’ve been reading!! I’m currently behind 3 book reviews because I literally wanted to jump right into the next one! But here’s the first of three overdue blogs!!

Summer reads tend to be light, easy to go through, perhaps a bit funny. This book on the other hand was heartbreaking and I quickly realized, it probably wasn’t appropriate as summer read due to its sobering content. 

What The Book Is About

This book is about a woman named Alice Howland, a well renowned Professor of cognitive psychology who, at the age of 50, starts to experience the onset of dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s disease (ironic much?). This book takes us through Alice’s experience month by month. Some months you can notice subtle ways in which the disease is affecting her and in other months, it seems like such a quick decline.
 
Alice initially keeps her diagnosis to herself but then confides in her husband, John, who happens to be a Professor and Researcher at Harvard. Alice initially decides to power through and continue teaching, however, she’s gutted when she receives student evaluations that confirm that the once very well prepared professor now comes to class not knowing what she’s supposed to be teaching or repeating lessons. The Head of the faculty decides for Alice that the best thing to do is to stop teaching. I think that this is probably the biggest signal to Alice that she can’t go on as if this disease is doing nothing to her. Once she’s off work, she’s forced to come face-to-face with the effects of Alzheimer’s and realizes that things will never be the same. A once independent woman now struggles with her onset of Alzheimer’s that starts to render herself dependent on her loved ones.

My Thoughts

I had a neighbour with Alzheimer’s and all I could think about was her as I read this book. While she was older in age, the decline of anyone due to disease is painful to watch. One moment they’re fine, the next they’re spiraling downward into an abyss of confusion.
 
I definitely considered this book a page turner. I think what really tugged at my heart strings was the way that each chapter ended. In order to track the progression of Alzheimer’s, Alice promises herself to answer a few questions that are seemingly simple and that would be easy for her to remember the answers to. As each chapter ends, she asks herself these same questions in way to test her memory. In the first half of the book, she answers with ease but closer to the end of the book, you can experience her memory loss as she struggles to answer them. This for me was truly heartbreaking. 

Genova did an excellent job in capturing the torment that Alice was going through as she was learning to adjust to all of her changes and the effects it was having on her family. Genova was really able to portray the family dynamics that drastically change when a loved one is diagnosed with something so life-altering. I think each of Alice’s loved ones portrayed a good variety of the way people might deal with a loved ones diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. 

Alice’s husband, John, took a very clinical approach to reacting to Alice’s diagnosis. I felt that he took a lot of the emotion out of his thinking on how to move forward and immediately started discussing medications that Alice could take to slow down the effects of the disease. I think throughout the book he starts realizing that you can’t simply take the emotion out and as he watches Alice’s condition deteriorate we see a side of John that I think is quite human. He admits to her that he simply cannot watch her be consumed by her disease and just doesn’t know how to handle the situation. Although Alice is able to reason and form opinions, John takes the approach of making a life-changing decision to move to New York for a job that he’s been offered despite Alice not wanting to go. I think this highlights the way people sometimes feel that once someone has been diagnosed with a condition, that they automatically have no opinion or say in anything.

Alice’s eldest daughter, Anna, initially reacts in a way that shows her concern for her mother. When Alice’s children learn of their mother’s condition, 2 of them go to get tested to see if they have the mutation of the gene that causes Alzeimer’s. When Anna finds out she has the condition and that it could potentially be passed down to any children she decides to have, you can sense a bit of resentment on Anna’s part. Again, as painful as that seems, I think it’s valid and human reaction. Alice of course feels immense guilt – what mother wants to see or know that their child can suffer from something that they would have passed down? After some genetic testing during the time that Anna was looking to get pregnant, it’s confirmed that her twins do not possess the gene. When Anna shares this with Alice, she is hit with a sense of relief and I think this part of the story added a bit of silver lining in that science has come so far and that you’re now able to know a lot more upfront than before.
Being a biologist, Alice’s son, Tom, takes a scientific approach like his father but never fails to acknowledge Alice as a human and some type of unintelligible person. I didn’t find that there was too much to focus on this relationship. He just seemed to be similar to his father but with more compassion and not forgetting that Alice was still a human with the capability of understanding, despite the fact that her memory was fading.
The relationship that evolves the most was with Alice and her youngest daughter, Lydia. Lydia is portrayed as a spirited person that wants nothing more than to commit herself to acting. Being the academic she is, Alice was constantly looking to change her daughter’s views about her future which caused a lot of friction between the two. Lydia started off being much closer to John who seemed to understand her need to do her own thing as long as she was passionate about it. As the book evolves, Lydia becomes much more involved with her mother’s well-being and a wounded mother-daughter relationship flourishes in the midst of an otherwise dark time.
Finally, Alice’s relationship with herself was the most prominent. Genova wrote this book from Alice’s point of view so as the reader, you really do experience what she does. Alice’s struggle with Alzheimer’s is not just taxing on her family, but she has to grapple with trying to adapt with the disease in various roles – one of a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a professor, and a woman in general. I found it so sad that when she initially comes to grips with her condition she creates the “Butterfly Folder” on her computer. She leaves a note on her computer that tells her if she’s unable to remember the answers to her simple questions that she is to open the folder. It was a heart wrenching moment to read the letter that she writes to herself – having the “sound minded” Alice speak to the version of Alice whose memories have now faded. I hardly ever cry when reading a book, but I cried right at this part which amplified that the struggle from within is probably the hardest thing to deal with.
While this book was fiction, there are many real-life stories like it that are 100% real which is why this book was easy to relate with. I do recommend this book to anyone that’s looking for a dose of reality. Although this isn’t a “feel good book”, it will make you want to hug your loved ones and remind them you love them.

 

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