I have a favorite book of the year so far, you guys. Still Alice is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in some time. I enjoyed Lisa Genova’s second novel, Left Neglected, very much. (I listened to that one as an audiobook, too.) But Still Alice gripped me from the first lines, and never let me go – I was riveted. Let me tell you more.
The two books have more than a few threads in common. Both feature married women, with three children, in male-dominated fields with all the requisite toughness and work ethic but also with plenty of feminine soft spots, struggling to reconcile the two; both live in Boston. One could easily surmise that these are attributes shared by the author, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist-turned-novelist. Where Sarah of Left Neglected had young children, though, Alice Howland has grown children: one lawyer trying to get pregnant, one doctor just finishing his medical training, and one relatively wayward daughter who has scorned college in favor of acting. Alice is a Harvard professor of psychology, and her husband John is also a Harvard doc, working with human cells & a possible cure for cancer. She is nearing her 50th birthday when the book opens, and shortly after it, she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The story is concerned with the progression of her disease, the changes it wreaks on her life and the lives of her husband and three children, and their struggles (independently and as a family unit) to handle these changes. It is also centrally about Alice herself, as a person, what Alzheimer’s does to her and her reactions & dealings with that disease. Again, the author is a neuroscientist, so while I (thankfully) don’t have any experience with Alzheimer’s disease by which to judge this portrayal, I trust Genova’s ability to tell it truly.
I became deeply engrossed in this story from the very beginning. Although told in the third person, we are very much inside Alice’s head (call it third person limited, for which I like this explanation because of the example chosen!). Alice felt very much like a real, flawed-but-likeable person. I was occasionally exasperated with her choices: to fight with Lydia over her acting career, to fail to appreciate her, and to put off telling her husband about her diagnosis. But I always sympathized, and liked her throughout. I would like to spend a day or a week with this woman. In fact, in telling Husband about this story as I listened to it, I referred to her as my friend. This is not something I normally do with fictional characters.
I was deeply emotionally involved. If I was angry with Alice for not telling John she had Alzheimer’s right away, I was even angrier with John for his reaction, and his repeated failures to be supportive. I wanted to cry when they began considering their future. And I did cry, often, as the disease progressed and Alice’s family was – still flawed and imperfect, but earnest and effortful and loving in their handling of these events. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that I was charmed by the silver-lining aspect, where Alice’s relationship with Lydia grew stronger in this time of sickness. I pondered whether it was a bit too fictional-happy, to insert such a silver lining, and decided it wasn’t.
This is a sad story, certainly, and I cried more than a few times. (I finished this book in the gym, and it took great effort not to weep on the elliptical machine. What would people have thought?) But there is love, and hope, and strength; Alice keeps a certain dignity that made me love her more as she got sicker. I can see how this would be a painful read for someone whose own life has been affected by Alzheimer’s, but I’m inclined to think it might be worth the pain for the beauty it expresses.
If you’ve read the book or don’t care to, highlight the white text to read my spoiler-y discussion below; but if you intend to read this book, don’t.
I was saddened by Alice’s decision to plan her suicide, but I respected it. When she got so sick that she couldn’t execute her own plans, I found that sadder still. I wondered a little at Genova’s decision to end the story the way she did, with Alice fading into gray; I would have liked to know her final fate, when and how she died, whether John moved her to a place she never wanted to be (a “home,” or New York), but I think this way was for the best. That fade-to-gray is probably most like the end of Alice’s own understanding of things – most like Alzheimer’s disease.
Unlike Left Neglected, this book is read by the author, and when I heard that I was thrilled, because my author-narrated audiobook experiences have so far been 100% wonderful. Still Alice is no exception. Genova’s goodreads page tells us she’s an actress as well as a neuroscientist and novelist, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she delivers her characters feelingly (or that she wrote a lovely, passionate actress character into this book). For the record, I really enjoyed the audio reading of Left Neglected, too, but I would never pass up an author-read version, and highly, highly recommend this audio version of Still Alice.
This is without a doubt going to make my list of best books read in 2013. I am so relieved to see that Genova has a third novel out already, Love Anthony, and is working on a fourth – whew! I can’t say enough good things about this book. I love Alice.