Friday 25 November 2011

Review: - Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I’d read quite a bit about Still Alice on various people’s blogs a while back, and then I found it in the library and thought I’d give it a whirl. It was Biopsychologist and Neurologist (wow..) Lisa Genova’s debut novel, and although I was initially apprehensive about reading it because of its subject matter (Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease), I’m really glad that I did.
Alice Howland is a fifty year old Harvard psychology professor, married to another successful Harvard professor, and with three grown up children. She thinks everything is going brilliantly, when she suddenly starts to forget things. Initially small things like forgetting why something is on her to-do list, but progressing to missing a flight to Chicago, and not being able to remember what she is supposed to be lecturing about cause her to seek medical advice. When she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice feels like her world is falling apart, and she and her family must learn to cope with her gradual decline.
This book was beautifully written. At the moment I tend to be looking for books to uplift me and make me happy and I didn’t think that a book about Alzheimer’s would do that, but Lisa Genova’s style was really engrossing and emotive. The structure of the book reflects Alice’s mental state; at the beginning it is very fluid and articulate, but as her disease progresses the gaps in the narrative become greater. Because it is all told from her point of view, when she cannot remember things, you hear that in the narrative. At one point, she sleeps for an entire two days, and when she reaches the point of no longer recognising her children, she assigns them titles; ‘the actress’ and ‘the mother’. I loved Alice’s strength and determination and I thought that her dignity in the face of such an undignified disease was inspirational. Because she is so intelligent and has always been so completely in control of her life, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s when she is only fifty, although always shattering, is probably more so to her than it would be to other people. Genova has given herself an extreme end of the spectrum of humanity to work with, and she portrays Alice’s point of view beautifully.
For me, though, the most interesting part of the story was the effect of Alice’s disease on her relationships with her family. Because of the kind of Alzheimer’s that she has, there is a 50% chance that each of her children will have inherited it, and one of her daughters is trying to have a baby. If she gets pregnant, then any child she had would also have the 50% chance of inheriting the disease. Alice has to tell her children that not only does she have a progressive, degenerative disease which may make her forget them completely, and for which there is no cure, but also that there is a strong chance that any or all of them may also have the disease, which could lead to their children also inheriting it. What an awful thing to have to do and Genova portrays it so strongly. Throughout this and many other scenes in the book, Alice is the pillar of strength – her husband John goes into denial about everything that is happening pretty much straight away and never really comes out of it apart from to patronize her. I have to admit that I really didn’t care much for him at all, but I think that the purpose of the character was to really show the different ways of reacting to a disease.

Still Alice really showed the strains that Alzheimer’s can put on a long and happy marriage, especially at such an early age, where the partner is often still in employment – in the case of John an employment which Alice says is his passion in a way that she never was. I got angry about the fact that throughout the book he seemed to be picking his career over Alice, but of course it is a choice. No matter how much it seems like it should be an obvious one, everybody isn’t the same, and while it may seem a no –brainer to most people, other people have different sets of priorities. To me, it just really seemed like John was used to having this super intelligent, independent, driven woman for his wife and couldn’t really cope when she changed and became incredibly dependent on him.
Despite having thought that it wouldn’t be an uplifting read, I ended the book with a little smile on my face. Without being overly sentimental or predictable, it made me feel that little bit better about the world, which is really what I’m looking for at the moment. Although I didn’t have as dramatic a reaction to it as I’ve had to books like Reading Lolita in Tehran or The Night Circus, it has made its’ quiet way onto my Best of 2011 list, and so will be up for grabs in my Blogoversary giveaway in January. Watch this space...


  1. Great review Bex, I really liked it too. Want to read her other book now aswell!


    P.s have retweeted this for you

  2. I have read this book a while back and I really enjoyed it myself. I will link your review to mine :)

  3. Thankyou both! :-) I think her other book will be going on my gigantic TBR somewhere!