A very strange thing happened when I read this book. It all started with a terrible cold, which was bad for my productivity (from a business-running standpoint) but good for allowing me to get in some much-needed reading time. So I spent a good part of the afternoon lying on the couch, nestled among between the tissues and the humidifier. And about 3-4 chapters in to this story about a woman who is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease, I started to feel like I was the one with Alzheimer’s. My phone somehow seemed harder to operate. Getting up to make myself a cup of tea required more effort. That’s the kind of effect this book had on me.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova is a novel (and soon-to-be-released movie with Julianne Moore) about Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease just before her 50th birthday. Alice is your typical high-achieving academic: she works really, really hard, and takes great pride in her extremely high intellect (about one extremely narrow topic — linguistics). Her husband John, also a Harvard academic but in biology, leads a similar life.
The book starts with Alice's small bouts of forgetfulness: she can't remember what an item on her written to-do list is about; soon after she forgets a word during a professional presentation she’s giving at Stanford. She waves off the memory lapses as a symptom of impending menopause. But then the little things begin to pile up and get worse — like when Alice becomes disoriented while running a familiar route — and it isn’t long before Alice discovers the truth: it’s not menopause that’s causing the forgetfulness but Alzheimer’s.
Overall, I feel like the book is well written. It's told in first person, from Alice's viewpoint, but also skillfully pulls in the lives and perspectives of her husband and three children, Lydia, Anna and Tom (and to a lesser extent, Howland’s dead mother and sister, through flashbacks).
Alice’s story is told over a period of three years, where the reader gets an up-close-and-personal view of what it’s like for Alice as the Alzheimer’s begins to take over in terrifying detail: believing a rug is a hole in the middle of the floor, entering someone else’s house and removing all the dishes, not being able to remember where the bathroom is located.
Towards the end of the book I felt like the narrative lost a bit of its momentum, and even became a little preachy (Alice's speech at a conference had me skipping over whole sentences). I wished the author would have dug a little deeper at the emotions and confusion surrounding Alice’s downward spiral. The most compelling character in the book was Alice's husband, John; I wish Genova would have worked harder to show us his emotions about having a wife diagnosed with this devastating disease. But overall it was a worthy (and fast — always a bonus) read, and I’d recommend it to anyone, especially those who are dealing with a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
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Jill Hinton Wolfe