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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Reviewed Format: UK trade paperback
Release Date: March 2010 (this edition)
Pages: 336

Alice Howland is a respected Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  Her research has earned her a distinguished position in the literature of psycholinguistics; her publications have become cornerstones of knowledge in her field; her speeches and lectures are in high demand, allowing Alice to remain active in travel.  She’s married with three adult children, is 50 years old, at the height of her career, but can’t remember simple words during lecture, forgets to board a plane, and loses her way on a run back home.  In just a few short months Alice is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s Disease.

The rapid decline of Alice’s condition is heart-breaking and alarming.  Lisa Genova’s expertise as a Neuroscientist gives her a unique perspective on the science of Alzheimer’s; her personal experience with the disease gives her an emotional understanding.  The narrative is painstakingly verbose with the language of neuropathy, cellular biology, and pharmaceuticals.  It’s clear from the beginning that Genova’s own knowledge fuels Alice’s scientific rationalizations.  In fact, Alice’s husband is a cancer cell biologist; her son, Tom, is a surgeon--what better excuse to exercise the clinical lingo of Alzheimer’s than between fellow scientists and intellectuals trained around the words most of us feel we need a translator to understand?  While these characters justify the liberal application of unforgiving, medical descriptions, I couldn’t help feeling the narrative suffered more from this than it benefited.

As someone with personal experience with Alzheimer’s, I appreciated the effort that went into the research for Still Alice.  It’s a merciless, brutal disease with exhaustive explanations and an overwhelming amount of treatment information.  Genova put a lot of professional insight into her prose--it’s educational, surely, and sobering to read, but does come off as detached and sterile as the biology itself.  I hesitate to say this ruined the book for me because it didn’t.  It was surprisingly comforting to understand the mechanism of Alzheimer’s, the knowledge that’s still missing, the areas with vast improvement in research.  These explanations, prompted by doctor visits, psychological testing, and exam results, reenforced the framework of Alice’s Alzheimer’s, rivaled the emotional aspect of the novel.  Genova’s strengths are clearly supported by her mastery of the science.  Her dialogue, however, suffers under long-winded, rote conversations between characters.

Huge blocks of speech are delivered as if partitioned from the rest of the book--the voices of different characters begin to blend together in a unified Talk Of Alzheimer’s that includes the same cadence and earnest explanations, the same scientific curiosity.  I felt, quite empathetic with Alice.  Everyone was participating in the same dissection without her, arguing over the best practical methods involved or what to do with vastly different interpretations of the results.  These academic considerations are understandable--all but one of the Howland clan have post-graduate degrees--and, I suppose, necessary.  I do feel, and I think I was meant to feel, the division of perspective between the medical and the emotional sides of Alzheimer’s; the two always clash in reality.

There are some genuinely touching moments in the book, especially between Alice and Lydia, but also between John and Alice.  Their love for each other is obvious at times, but most often, John comes across as resentful and angry--he never seems to catch up to his wife’s diagnosis until the very end of the book.  Even then, he seems selfish and preoccupied.  Juxtaposed against Alice’s fears that his work has and will always come before her, John’s struggle to maintain a strong footing in his life and not let Alzheimer’s ruin it more than it already has, I don’t want to forgive his behavior as normal, but it could be.

Overall I can’t say whether I enjoyed this book more because of my experience with Alzheimer’s (one chapter at the end brought me to tears--I’ve never cried reading a book. Ever) or because Genova’s writing was genuinely moving.  I think it’s a little of both.  Her prose is heavy-handed for the most part, but there are passages that moved me beyond the experience I brought to the text.  Sometimes I felt like Genova was having a one-sided conversation with her readers, telling us what Alzheimer’s is, what it does, how it affects families and individuals, but isn’t that the point?  She does do an excellent job of mapping the progression of Alzheimer’s.  As Alice falls deeper into her own dementia, lines begin repeating themselves with a rhythm so easy it’s frightening.  I found myself being drawn into these cyclical diversions and marveling at how perceptive Genova is--and how talented--to bring the disease to a relatable level.

I could have done without some of the more detailed explanations and repetitious terms, but that’s an opinion of style that other readers may find appealing, or even helpful.  If anyone needs help coping, I do think Alice’s fictional experience does help put the disease into perspective.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster UK for the review copy!

How many Jawas recommend this book?


Anonymous said...

Not exactly a book I want to read, but I truly enjoyed reading your review. :)

Erika said...

@TJ: Awe, thank you. :)

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