Saturday, January 31, 2009

Still Alice

Months ago, Still Alice by Lisa Genova was featured in one of the Boston-focused magazines—Improper Bostonian, I think. I clipped the article and had been carrying it with me, haunting every bookstore in a 20-mile radius to try to get it. As I found out, this original version was self-published and not likely to be found on the shelves where I was looking. Happily, Simon and Schuster published this book, and it is now easily found everywhere.

Kirkus Reviews
First novel efficiently showcases the experience of developing early-onset Alzheimer's. In 24 months, 49-year-old Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland exchanges the role of high-achieving teacher, wife and mother of three for that of a disoriented, inarticulate, forgetful shell of her former self. Stricken much earlier than most by this progressive, degenerative disease for which there is no cure, Alice loses her profession, independence, clarity and contact with the world with shocking rapidity in a narrative that sometimes reads more like a dramatized documentary than three-dimensional fiction. Genova, an online columnist for the National Alzheimer's Association, has a brisk style and lays out the facts of the disease-statistics, tests, drugs, clinical trials-plainly, often rather technically. The responses to Alice of her three grown-up children, who are also at risk of the disease; the struggles of her equally high-flying husband, a Harvard biologist; and Alice's own emotional responses, including fear, suicidal thoughts, shame and panic, are offered in semi-educational fashion, sometimes movingly, sometimes mechanically. Alice's address to the Alzheimer's Association Annual Dementia Care Conference is an affecting final public statement before her descent into fog and the loving support of her children. Worthy, benign and readable, but not always lifelike.

Favorite Passages
Alice sums up how we feel about winter here in New England…
On the night of Eric Wellman’s holiday party, the sky felt low and thick, like it was going to snow. Alice hoped it would. Like most New Englanders, she’d never outgrown a childlike anticipation of the season’s first snow. Of course, also like most New Englanders, what she wished for in December she’d come to loathe by February, cursing her shovel and boots, desperate to replace the frigid, monochromatic tedium of winter with the milder pinks and yellow-greens of spring. But for tonight, snow would be lovely.

As we all do, Alice thought of the books she could get to later…
She looked at the rows of books and periodicals on her bookcase, the stack of final exams to be corrected on her desk, the emails in her inbox, the red, flashing voice-mail light on her phone. She thought about the books she’d always wanted to read, the ones adorning the top shelf in her bedroom, the ones she figured she’d have time for later.

A reflection on being at the beach…
Alice watched the tide coming in, erasing footprints, demolishing an elaborate sand castle decorated with shells, filling in a hole dug earlier that day with plastic shovels, ridding the shore of its daily history.

An image of shadows on a living room wall…
The late afternoon sun cast strange, Tim Burton shadows that slithered and undulated across the floor and up the walls.

And this of babies’ feet…
Alice imagined holding them in her arms, their warm bodies, their tiny, curled fingers and chunky, unused feet….

Reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly pointed out Genova’s sometimes clinical and “clumsy” (Publishers Weekly) writing style. I might have approached Still Alice differently had I read these reviews first. However, I was immediately drawn into Alice’s shrinking world and appreciated all of the clinical information about Alzheimer’s and did not find it distracted from the text. I appreciated the “dramatized documentary” feel to the novel and thought the emotion of Alice’s story was well balanced with information about Alzheimer’s.

This mother/daughter exchange is something we mothers all would hope for, and is none the less hoped forl when the mother is descending into the isolation of Alzheimer’s:

“Okay, what do you feel?”
“I feel love. It’s about love.”
The actress squealed, rushed over to Alice, kissed her on the cheek, and smiled, every crease of her face delighted.
“Did I get it right?” asked Alice.
“You did, Mom. You got it exactly right.”

Finished on January 30, 2009
Rating: 4.5/5 (Fiction Scale)
Pages: 262
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Copyright: 2008
Format: Trade Paperback

Dedication: Iin Memory of Angie, For Alena

Epigraph: None


Nan said...

This sounds so good. There's a nonfiction book written in the first person by a man experiencing the beginning stages of A. It's such an interesting, sad, sad subject. Marcia, do you still have your review of the Laurie Colwin book - Happy All The Time? I've just read my second LC nonfiction offering.

Marcia said...

Nan-What is the name of the non-fiction book? And as for LC, serendipity strikes! Just yesterday, I was looking at my collection of yet-to-be-read LC titles. I'll repost the review with a bit of an update later today (right now I'm supposed to be working!).

Nan said...

I did a search - typing in nonfiction book by man getting alzheimers, and this came up:

Losing My Mind by Thomas DeBaggio

I'm quite sure this is the one because (though I have not read it) I remember it was a while ago, and that a greenhouse figured into his life.

More searching brought me to the NPR site:

It sounds like he wrote a second book. What an incredibly terrible, weird disease it is.

Les said...

This sounds very good to me. I have a copy coming my way, so I've skipped reading the passages and will follow-up once I've had a chance to read the book myself.

Les said...

I don't know if you saw, but I recently read this book (review here) and thought it was absolutely remarkable! Like you, I hadn't read either the Kirkus or PW reviews, so I wasn't aware of any negative remarks about Genova's writing style. And now that I know about these reviews, I beg to differ. I never once thought of the narrative as too clinical/technical or clumsy. I found the book completely believable and engrossing, and like you, appreciated all the scientific and medical information.

And now that I've written my own review, I've gone back and re-read your favorite passages. Yep. They're all very good, especially the last one between Alice and her daughter.

BTW, I've just started Little Bee! :)