SHORT & SWEET REVIEW: INSIDE THE O’BRIENS BY LISA GENOVA

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).

Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O’Briens is the latest novel from Lisa Genova, whose book Still Alice was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore. I have yet to see the movie, but when I read the book, I found it “fascinating as much from psychological and neurological perspectives, as from the emotions it evoked”. Inside the O’Briens had the same effect.

What would you do if the body and brain you rely on suddenly let you down – and would it change the person you are inside? Joe O’Brien is a Boston cop; his physical stamina and methodical mind have seen him through decades policing the city streets, while raising a family with his wife Rosie. When he starts committing uncharacteristic errors – mislaying his police weapon, trouble writing up reports, slurred speech – he attributes them to stress. Finally, he agrees to see a doctor and is handed a terrifying, unexpected diagnosis: Huntington’s disease.

Not only is Joe’s life set to change forever, but each of his four grown-up children has a fifty per cent chance of inheriting the disease. Observing her potential future play out in her father’s escalating symptoms, his pretty yoga teacher daughter Katie wrestles with how to make the most of the here and now, and how to care for her dad who is, inside, always an O’Brien. Inside the O’Briens is a powerfully true and tender elegy to the resilience of the human spirit.

Told from the perspective of Joe as his body and mind manifests Huntington’s, and Katie, as she wrestles with the idea of genetic testing, Inside the O’Briens again demonstrates Genova’s ability to share the inner thoughts of her characters, leading to a much-deeper understanding of this cruel disease. It’s not a disease I knew anything about prior to reading this. On a number of occasions Genova highlights reactions to a person displaying Huntington’s symptoms, which includes “loss of balance, reduced dexterity, falling, chorea, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing” and “depression, apathy, paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulsivity, outbursts of anger” and more. It would be easy to judge someone as being drunk or drug-affected … or plain weird. This tendency to judge is brought out most strongly through Joe, who always thought his mother died an incompetent alcoholic, and later finds she, too, had Huntington’s. This realisation brings him – and the reader – to tears.

Like Still Alice, this novel makes you second guess every twitch and tic … just as the characters do … and draws out the big “what would I do?” question. Harrowing and heartfelt, but threaded with hope, Inside the O’Briens is an emotive, insightful and thoughtful read. A big thumbs up from me.

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