Genova’s debut revolves around Alice Howland – Harvard professor, gifted researcher and lecturer, wife, and mother of three grown children. One day, Alice sets out for a run and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. It’s a route she has taken for years, but nothing looks familiar. She is utterly lost. Is her forgetfulness the result of menopausal symptoms? A ministroke? A neurological cancer? After a few doctors’ appointments and medical tests, Alice has her diagnosis, and it’s a shocker — she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
What follows is the story of Alice’s slow but inevitable loss of 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. To Genova’s great credit, readers learn of the progression of Alice’s disease through the reactions of others, as Alice does, so they feel what she feels — a slowly building terror.
My Thoughts (May Contain Spoilers)
Still Alice is exactly what I came to expect when I picked up Lisa Genova’s debut novel, which was released in 2008. The main character, Alice, is a 50-year-old professor at Harvard. Organized, efficient, highly-educated, smart, and sharp, she never thought in her wildest dreams that someone like her could be diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers. Just like with Genova’s second novel, Left Neglected, Still Alice is written in great detail—Genova obviously does her research quite carefully (and being a neurologist-turned-writer, I would expect no less).
Still Alice doesn’t rush itself—the diagnoses of Alice comes after she notices changes in her memory and starts having symptoms she attributes to monopause. At first, Alice’s memory lapses are the same kind that anyone could have—forgetting a certain word, misplacing items, not recognizing cues on her to-do list. But as the months go by, the symptoms get more and more severe.
I really appreciate how Genova wrote Still Alice by having each chapter outline a month in Alice’s life, so the reader can see how quickly the disease progressed. It’s disconcerting to think that within just a year (the book span is a mere 2 years), Alice’s symptoms advanced as much as they did. One of the most notable parts of the novel, in my mind, that showcased the symptoms Alice was put up against was when Alice was preparing for a class she taught regularly. Rushing off to class, telling herself that they can’t start with her, she enters the room with the mindset that she’s a student—waiting the encouraged 20 minutes before leaving the class with the rest of her students because the professor—Alice—did not show up.
Another part that really hit home for me was when Alice and her husband are at their cottage for the summer. John, her husband, has been asked to run with Alice, since she could get disoriented and not know where she is or where she should be going. John asks her if she’s ready to go for a run, Alice goes in for a fleece, sees a book on the nightstand, grabs it, and proceeds to go to the porch to read. When John asks if they’re going for a run, she says she needs to use the bathroom first. John goes to wait outside and Alice gets disoriented in her own house and can’t find the bathroom in time.
One of the things Alice is disappointed about is that soon she won’t be able to read—even trying to comprehend a simple conversation is difficult at times—and there are so many books she wants to devour! Reading this made me sad—I can’t even fathom what it would be like to lose the ability to read, to lose the ability to put words and sentences together.
The fact that Alzheimers snuck up on Alice so early in life—a disease that usually attacks in the 60th or 70th years—really made me think, as a reader. Leaving the novel, you’ll want to devour all the books that have been sitting, neglected, on your nightstand. You’ll want to do things that have been sitting, undone, on your to-do list. Those things you’ve always dreamed of doing? Travel, bungee jumping, taking that art class, or learning to ski—you’ll want to do that after reading Still Alice because you’ll realize that life is too short to be wasted.
“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean today didn’t matter.”
Genova crafted a beautiful novel. The characters are flesh and blood—you could imagine them being in the same room as you while you read. As I reader, I sympathized with Alice when she had a memory lapse and repeated herself or expressed forgetfulness in front of someone who’s never seen it happen (e.g. asking the same question within minutes at a seminar, having no recollection of previously asking it).
I’ve never known anyone who was diagnosed with Alzheimers, but seeing reactions of Alice’s colleagues, family, and friends, I understand how they would act how they did. One can only hope that reading Still Alice will make readers more compassionate towards people who have been thrust into a heartless disintegration.
Lisa Genova is a force to be reckoned with. I look forward to reading her next novel and will continue sharing her first two works with everyone I know. A highly recommended author.
Read More of My Lisa Genova Reviews
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