Left Neglected by Lisa Genova (audio)

Left Neglected evoked strong reactions from me, which I think is always a recommendation.

Sarah Nickerson is in her late 30’s, happily married to Bob, with three children (Charlie, Lucy and Linus), and a successful career in a male-dominated hectic corporate world of 80-hour work weeks. She is accustomed to using every odd moment to send emails, make phone calls, or read up on work; she would be lost without her nanny Abby; a slight traffic delay costs her the chance to read to her daughter before bed. In other words, she likes her life, but it’s jam-packed-full with no room for error.

The error comes one rainy day on the freeway; a traffic accident leaves Sarah with a unique sort of brain injury called “left neglect.” She’s missing the left side of her consciousness of the world. She can’t find or use her left arm, her left hand, her left leg; she can’t see things or people on the left side of the room, her dinner plate, her world. She can’t conceive of left. Sarah wakes up in a hospital and has to laboriously relearn everything. Juggling international corporate intrigue with a staff of 1000’s is no longer her primary concern; she can’t even dress herself.

Sometimes post-accident Sarah’s whining and frustration with her condition annoyed me, and sometimes pre-accident Sarah irritated me with her material and work-related priorities. But overall, she was definitely a sympathetic character; and if I was sometimes mad at her, that only made our relationship stronger in the end. As in a real friendship, we had our ups and downs, and our bond increased through those trials.

I sometimes felt that Genova tried to maximize the angst. Sarah’s flashbacks to the childhood death of her brother Nate, and its repercussions for her present-day relationship with her mother, might have been pushing the psych-drama angle a little bit. But overall, it worked.

I was reminded of another book, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. I read that one pre-blog so no review here, but it touched me very deeply. Taylor’s book is nonfiction, and deals with a different brain injury; but the two are similar in that they describe a brain injury from the patient’s perspective, along with the recovery. I suffered a brain injury in a bicycle accident in 2007, and while I was lucky to suffer less severe injury than either of these protagonists, I still found myself identifying. My own recovery was fascinating to me and made me think about things I’d never considered before; when I read My Stroke of Insight a year or so later, it helped me look at my own experience and learn from it. Left Neglected held a similar self-referential interest for me. (To go even further out on a limb: I’m now doing physical therapy following my knee surgery, and trying to get back to mountain bike racing. The connection is vague and yet I can’t help but compare my frustrations to the fictional Sarah’s. Again, my injury is very minor by comparison. But the cycle of optimism and pessimism, frustration and success, crosses over.) All of this means that when Sarah gets annoying – failing to recognize how lucky she’s been; refusing to work hard with her therapists; wanting to give up and cry – I’m annoyed, and yet I understand, too.

The massive change in the way Sarah views her world – and not just in terms of right and left – may seem ambitious, even unrealistic, to some readers. This might be said too of Taylor’s change in philosophy in My Stroke of Insight. But in both cases it rang very true for me. I felt that I had traveled so far with the protagonists, both fictional and non, that I was right there with them at the end of their stories. Is my outlook unique? Possibly, but I doubt it. I think we’ve probably all had some life-changing experience (hopefully less painful than the ones detailed here) that allows us to get inside Sarah Nickerson’s head a little bit.

Maybe it’s odd that I’m drawing such a strong parallel between two books that are really rather different, but they both affected me strongly. In the end I give Left Neglected very high marks, and I’m interested in Genova’s earlier novel, Still Alice. For those who are curious, she does have credibility in this subject matter: she has a PhD in neuroscience. Check it out. And if/when you have/do, please let me know if this book touches you as it’s touched me. Here’s to being thankful for our health!

4 Responses

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] is Lisa Genova’s most recent novel, and I have now run out. (Her earlier works are Left Neglected and Still Alice.) This is not my favorite of her novels – that would be Still Alice. But it […]

  3. […] Left Neglected by Lisa Genova: I felt intimately close to the female lead character in this story thanks to Sarah Paulson’s reading. […]

  4. […] Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD […]

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