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.
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.
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.
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.
The late afternoon sun cast strange, Tim Burton shadows that slithered and undulated across the floor and up the walls.
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.
“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.”