REVIEW: STILL ALICE BY LISA GENOVA

Still AliceSTILL ALICE

Author: Lisa Genova
Simon & Schuster RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The film version of bestselling novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova is about to be released in Australia and I’m looking forward to seeing this with a friend. In the case of books-to-movies, I do prefer to read the books first so when the opportunity came up to review the novel, I jumped at it. A few friends had highly recommended the book (using words like “brilliant” and “heart-wrenching”), which cemented my desire to read it sooner rather than later. Here’s the blurb:

Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life—and her relationship with her family and the world—forever. At once beautiful and terrifying, Still Alice is a moving and vivid depiction of life with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory is a precious gift, even though most of us take it for granted. We laugh at our silly lapses in memory, chide ourselves and each other for incidences of forgetfulness, and joke about losing our memory as we age (or have children). In the opening paragraph, Alice has read the same sentence “three times without comprehending it” (ever done that?) while other parts of her mind are aware that her husband is somewhere in the house searching for his misplaced glasses, which are on the countertop, not obstructed from plain view. “How could he, someone so smart, a scientist, not see what was in front of him?”, she wonders. We’ve all been there. Ask any mother.

Yet, who among is is not, deep down, scared that their memories will disappear forever? I am. When a book like this challenges me to think about it, I feel terrified by the prospect. The idea of losing my connection with my reality, my family, my self, being unable to follow conversations or storylines … all of this scares me. Genova taps into this fear in a powerful, moving and authentic manner. Reading the novel, you follow Alice’s progression with the disease – beginning with words becoming “thingy” and later, her children becoming “the actress” and “the mother” and her husband “the man”. You feel her frustration and then her confusion as she wonders why others look so stressed by exchanges that to her seem “simple and unproblematic”. You’re party to her medical appointments, which add a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity, as John, a biologist, has to replace denial with acceptance. Like Alice, you have glimpses into how other characters feel through their reactions, but on the whole, it’s Alice’s story and you’re really only privy to her inner thoughts.

More and more she was experiencing a growing distance from her self-awareness. Her sense of Alice – what she knew and understood, what she liked and disliked, how she felt and perceived – was also like a soap bubble, ever higher in the sky and more difficult to identify, with nothing but the thinnest liquid membrane protecting it from popping into thin air. (p271)

Still Alice is important as an awareness raiser – not just of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease itself – but of what it’s like to experience this horribly sad disease. It gives a voice to sufferers … a much-needed voice. Some might feel it is clinical, but a better word would be detached; it’s as if Alice is both within herself and watching from a distance, which mirrors her increasing detachment from reality. If anyone you know is suffering Alzheimer’s, read this, if only to walk in their shoes. I found it fascinating as much from psychological and neurological perspectives, as from the emotions it evoked.

Available from good bookstores and Simon & Schuster. My copy was courtesy of Simon and Schuster.