Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Still Alice had been sitting on my bedside table for a few weeks, loaned to me by a friend. Last night I was restless, so I decided to settle down and open its pages at last. This haunting first novel is both beautiful and tragic. It describes a fictional Harvard psychology professor’s discovery that she has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 50 and the terrifying deterioration of her memory as this incurable illness takes hold.
While Lisa Genova was a first-time novelist when she wrote this book, she holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and writes online columns for the National Alzheimer’s Association. Her prose is evocative, descriptive and informative as well as compassionate. The gripping story, while told in the third person through the eyes of the main character, Alice Howland, is so powerful and intimate that I almost felt that I was living the story along with her in a first person narrative. Sometimes, through truly brilliant repetition of text or dialogue, I had a glimmer of what it might actually be like to live with the disease as a portion repeated itself. So vivid are the descriptions in some scenes, I actually lived Alice’s confusion along with her until she figured out what she was looking for or how to spatially interpret data. I could literally feel my stomach clenching with anxiety as I tried to figure out what was going on, just like the main character.
Still Alice was not a comfortable book to read. I am only a few years younger than the main character and have had those moments of sheer panic as I hunt for misplaced keys, glasses, cellphone or iPod touch. I’ve had to retrace steps to figure out what I was going to do next. Each time, I wonder if it is a sign of something serious, but so far it has turned out to be nothing more than my brain and body telling me I’ve taken on too much.
This book portrays Alice’s attempt to cope with the disease with beauty, dignity and even gentle humour. The story also deals with the struggles and challenges of the people around her as well as other difficult issues faced by those challenged by Alzheimer’s, without ever giving in to total despair. The uplifting chapters at the end of the book are a true triumph of sorts, even though the progression of Alice’s disease remains unchecked. Even if you’ve never known anyone with Alzheimer’s, this brilliantly crafted tale is worth reading in a book club for discussion or on your own.
Paperback format, 292 pages, Self-Published in 2007, published in 2009 by Gallery Books (a division of Simon and Schuster)