One day I came back from work and had a package waiting for me outside my door. Not having ordered anything and being the only one in the apartment that summer, I was super confused. I checked the package, made sure it was mine, racked my brain for possible books I could have ordered and forgotten about, and then finally opened it. The minute I saw two beautiful brand new copies of Still Alice and Left Neglect by Lisa Genova, I knew who had sent it. My friend absolutely loves Genova and has been quite persistent in her attempts to get me to read her books. So this post is for Sneha, who I hope will be happy to know that I recently finished Still Alice and really enjoyed it.
Genova’s writing isn’t necessarily comparable to great literary works but her style is simple and interwoven with subtle references and a lot of foreshadowing . What I liked most about her writing was that she didn’t shy away from using science and scientific terms while telling her story. She knows that her audience may not be familiar with the jargon but accepts the challenge of educating her readers and making them understand the complexities of the brain. Genova has her Doctorate in Neurosciences and is clearly an authority on the subject of brain disorders, the central theme to all her stories.
Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a fifty year old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. The book highlights the struggle of living with Alzheimer’s and the rapid progression of the disease. Genova excellently portrays the frustration, confusion, and isolation that often accompany the progression of alzheimer’s. Losing control of your cognitive functions sounds terrifying and Still Alice gives you a glimpse into exactly how scary it can be. This story made me realize how much I take my ability to function “normally” for granted. From being unable to find the bathroom in her own house, to not recognizing her youngest daughter, to not being able to go on a run by herself. You slowly see the ways in which the disease progresses and makes even the smallest task hard to accomplish.
There is one scene in the book that really stood out and still creeps into my thoughts every once in awhile. Alice and her family are all gathered together to watch Lydia perform in a play. They are sitting around together earlier in the day Alice asks Lydia multiple times what time her play was. Lydia patiently answers each time encouraging her to write it down on her blackberry. Meanwhile her son insists she doesn’t need to worry about it, that they won’t leave her behind. Her eldest daughter Anna instead berates her mother, insisting she fight for her memory and not be lazy. The entire time Alice’s confusion if only worsened by all the frustration.
I thought this particular scene revealed so many different emotions and character developments simultaneously. It shows how Alice wants to be independent as well as demonstrating how hard it is for someone who doesn’t have the disease to understand what is going on inside the brains of their loved ones. Another part that sticks out is the fact that Alice is cognitively aware of her disease more times than I expected her to be. She even tries to shield her family from the reality of how confused she would get. She doesn’t want to burden them with her problems, and she doesn’t want to lose her independence. This is also present in Alice’s struggle to preserve her immaculate reputation at Harvard.
Overall, Still Alice was a great read that I would highly recommend. Genova excellently emphasizes the boredom, the alienation, and feelings of being ignored that Alice is suffering. Genova has a talent and you can see it in the way she intertwines literature with science, simultaneously entertaining her readers but also providing them with an arsenal of knowledge.
“And I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted. This disease will not be bargained with. I can’t offer it the names of the US presidents in exchange for the names of my children. I can’t give it the names of state capitals and keep the memories of my husband.”
“Even then, more than a year earlier, there were neurons in her head, not far from her ears, that were being strangled to death, too quietly for her to hear them. Some would argue that things were going so insidiously wrong that the neurons themselves initiated events that would lead to their own destruction. Whether it was molecular murder or cellular suicide, they were unable to warn her of what was happening before they died.”
“I used to know how the mind handled language, and I could communicate what I knew. I used to be someone who knew a lot. No one asks for my opinion or advice anymore. I miss that. I used to be curious and independent and confident. I miss being sure of things. There’s no peace in being unsure of everything all the time. I miss doing everything easily. I miss being a part of what’s happening. I miss feeling wanted. I miss my life and my family. I loved my life and family.”