Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

The June book selection for my personal book club, Chapter Chat, was Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Genova has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and she is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer's Association. So it is not surprising that her first novel would be a book dealing with a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer's disease. Write what you know, right? Apparently, Genova had a very difficult time finding a publisher for her novel and decided to self-publish it. That turned out to be a brilliant decision. She was eventually picked up by Simon and Schuster and her book is getting respectable reviews. Rightfully so.

Still Alice tells the absolutely heartbreaking story of Alice Howland, a 50 year old Harvard professor of linguistics and psychology, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Genova takes the risky and novel approach of telling the story from Alice's point of view - another brilliant decision on her part. The story is all the more poignant and devastating seen through Alice's eyes as she first comes to terms with her diagnosis and then has to deal with her declining cognitive abilities. The reader is able to identify and empathize with Alice as her disease progresses. We feel her frustration, fear and loneliness as her life is stripped away from her layer by layer. At one point she confides in her husband, John, that she misses herself. I can't even imagine the devastation. In the words of the author, "[Still Alice is] about identity and living a life that matters and about what a crisis does to relationships."

I loved the character of Alice. She was capable and strong and tried her very best to take control of her situation as best she could. She did everything she could to try to slow the progress of this disease. She devised clever ways of making life easier for herself. She even started a support group for other people with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. I identified with Alice in all these ways. I can picture myself doing exactly the same thing if I were in this (or a similar) situation. Alice is a real take charge kind of person. She isn't someone who wallows in self-pity or asks Why Me? I am the same way.

I do think there are some "problems" with this book, however. If you know someone suffering from Alzheimer's Disease (which is the case for one of our book club members), you may find the depiction of Alice's symptoms to be somewhat sugar-coated. Missing from Genova's books is the anger and lashing out that many Alzheimer's suffers experience. Also, Alice's diagnosis is made quickly and without the years of misdiagnosis which is typical in the case of Alzheimer's Disease. And perhaps most problematic, is the way in which Alice is so accepting of her diagnosis. She is never in denial. Even though she has plenty of opportunity to dismiss her symptoms as simple signs of fatigue, stress or possibly depression. According to those who are more familar with Alzheimer's Disease, this does not ring true. Perhaps Genova left some of this out for the purposes of keeping the book to a manageable length. For the average reader, I don't think that these issues will detract from the enjoyment of this book. For someone with Alzheimer's Disease or someone who knows someone with Alzheimer's Disease, this book may not ring true.
I would give Still Alice 3 STARS (I liked it).

Image from Google Images


Sandy said...

I couldn't call this book an 'entertaining' read but I did like it. Enjoy? Maybe not so much. But I think it gives a better idea of what is happening to an Alzheimer's patient, at least in the beginning. Frightening? A little because I think we all forget things and then wonder if it means anything more than a busy life. I will say it brought me to tears several times over very simple things. In general, I liked it and am glad I read it

Mary at My New 30 said...

This is one of those books that I would probably not read unless I did have someone close to me suffering through Alzheimer's. I think these types of reads are much too "real" if you know what I mean. Can you imagine "missing" yourself? That is frightening!

I am still in awe of all the reading that you manage to do along with blogging and all the other things you do as a working woman/mother/wife/friend! It takes me forever to read something here lately and then, well, it has to be something that really holds my attention!! I seem to get so bored with books these days!! Is it me, or is it the book?

Kudos my friend.

Anita said...

I'm intrigued by the topic/concept of this book, but I would probably want a more realistic reaction to an Alzheimer's diagnosis. I have a couple of friends who are dealing with parents suffering iwth Alzheimer's disease, and I have an Aunt that is sadly very entrenched now in the disease and does not really remember her own children now. It's heartbreakding.
Because my parents are older, and suffer with enough natural aging issues I'm not sure I could read this and not be very sad.
Thanks Pam for a wonderful review though.

Kathy B! said...

Interesting points you make. It seems often that people are inclined to sugar-coat the Alzheimer's symptoms. I wonder why?

This is a great review, Pam. You've piqued my interest again : )

Tammy Howard said...

This sounds intriguing. I love your reviews, Pam.


This book sounds wonderful. But Im hesitant to read it. My grandmother had the disease and it was very traumatic for me at times. She would have good days but then she would have bad ones. And OH WERE they BAD! I remember very clearly at 16 she started spitting at me. It was her recollection of a cherry spitting contest she had as a child. It was a very challenging time to see her go through it all.

Andrea (ace1028) said...

I read it and really liked it. My Grandmother suffered for many years from the disease, but was not an early-onset diagnosis, so there were certainly moments in the story that hit close to home. I thought the author did a good job at letting us see things from the perspective of the "patient."

Sheila DeChantal said...

Hmmmmmm..... sounds good. Thanks for the review. Oh, and love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I liked this book and believe it may help an ordinary family gain greater insight into the disease. The one problem I had with this book is the fact that we think in a form of language therfore the book remains a neuroscientists interpretation of the breakdown of mental function and loss of language that an Altzeimer patient MAY experience. The voice of the novel remains Genova's. The coming together of the family to cope with Alice as she declines is a nice ending if somewhat idealized. John Bailey's description of Iris Murdoch's descent into the disease in his book "Iris" is excellent.

Anonymous said...

I found "Still Alice" so interesting and enlightening that I read it twice (which I rarely do), and I will keep the book for future reference. Genova not only captures aspects of Alzheimer's, but also the ups and downs of family and work relationships. She did have to skip some angst, to keep the novel running smoothly. The reader just has to use his/her imagination.
I thought "Still Alice" was brilliant, and I highly recommend it.
Thanks, Pam.
Marie in Mississauga, Canada

Kym Rae said...

~~Excellent book! Still Alice is Relevant for everybody!! I interviewed Lisa Genova last month. She is AMAZING and Enlightening!

Anonymous said...

The joke goes: Don't worry, you won't remember you have Alzheimer's! Sugar coating, indeed. This is what we do with scary things. I loved the book so much I recommended it to my Book Club because it names the scare and deals with family relationships which are not always what we would hope for. --Nancy D.


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