Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: January 2009
Source: my personal library

Synopsis:

Alice Howland – Harvard professor, gifted researcher and lecturer, wife, and mother of three grown children – sets out for a run and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. She has taken the route for years, but nothing looks familiar. She is utterly lost. Medical consults reveal early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alice’s slowly but inevitably loses memory and connection with reality, told from her perspective. She gradually loses the ability to follow a conversational thread, the story line of a book, or to recall information she heard just moments before. Genova’s debut shows the disease progression through the reactions of others, as Alice does, so readers feel what she feels – a slowly building terror.

Yesterday I finished Still Alice by Lisa Genova, the fictional story of Alice Howland, a Harvard professor of psychology who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The book was absolutely fascinating, wonderfully written… but it was such a difficult read, emotionally. The story is told from Alice’s point of view, the view of the person enduring Alzheimer’s. Her struggles, her fears, her loneliness and frustration – everything Alice experienced completely enveloped me.

Genova takes readers through so many emotions, helping us feel how complex dealing with this disease must feel to the patients and their caregivers. I laughed when Alice ordered ice cream: “I’ll have a triple-scoop Peanut Butter Cup in a cone, please.” Hell, I’m on Lipitor. I felt angry that her husband would leave her alone in the house for long periods of time, or when her daughter said, “She should try to recall the information on her own and not get lazy.” Some of the scenes I found most profound were in the earlier stages, when Alice slipped in and out of confusion, aware of what was happening to her yet unable to control it, and acutely feeling the grief or humiliation that followed.

My spouse asked me, “Why do you read books like that?” Fair enough; many parts of the story brought me to tears. I thought about two moments in the book. The first was Alice’s realization that many of her friends and colleagues were uncomfortable around her. They wouldn’t make eye contact with her, or they’d avoid her altogether. The second was later in the story, when Alice is listening to her family argue: “They talked about her as if she weren’t sitting in the wing chair, a few feet away. They talked about her, in front of her, as if she were deaf. They talked about her, in front of her, without including her, as if she had Alzheimer’s disease.”

Because of my hospice volunteering training and limited interaction with people who have Alzheimer’s, I thought I knew a good bit about this disease. I don’t believe I’d ever really internalized what I’d learned, how it must feel to the patient, until reading this book. Yes, the content is difficult and often terrifying. But novels like Still Alice foster deeper insight, understanding, and a more human connection.

That being said, I definitely need to decompress from this by reading something much lighter next!