Beautifully Devastating

Still Alice book coverAuthor: Lisa Genova

Book clubs are a great way to broaden your reading horizons. Left to my own devices I would undoubtedly end up alternating dystopian future YA with Bloody Knife horror novels until the end of time. But this month I was tasked with reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova by my BC friend and I’m not sure if I want to hug her or curse her.

Still Alice is the story of a woman’s struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I know – depression in a one sentence plot summary, right? And it’s true – the subject matter is incredibly sad. Made more so by the fact that our entire book club is made up of middle aged women just about the same age as Alice. This book is going to haunt me for a long, long time.

Alice Howland is the Alice of the title. She is a tenured professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard and has, alongside her equally driven husband, created a remarkable body of work in her field. At 50, she’s at the top of her game, mentally and physically, and looks forward to the many productive years ahead. Her three children are grown and thriving, for the most part. She has her issues with her youngest, but she feels sure her opinion will ultimately prevail. Alice is a woman accustomed to getting her way.

Alice’s husband John is a classic absent minded professor. Forever misplacing his keys, glasses, briefcase, it’s just one of those things that Alice takes care of. When she begins to have memory lapses, she figures the years are catching up with her and she’s having menopausal memory symptoms consistent with her age. Only that isn’t the problem. We watch, helpless, as Alice deals first with her devastating diagnosis, and then with the ravages of the disease over the period of a little more than a year.

It seems like I’ve given a lot away, but I haven’t. We know from word one that this is a book about Alzheimer’s disease and we know who is going to have it. The meat of Still Alice isn’t in the diagnosis, it’s in the journey. And it’s a heartbreaking, fascinatingly narrated journey. Author Genova tells her story from Alice’s perspective. We aren’t on the outside looking in; we’re there with her, seeing the mistakes she’s making without realizing, knowing that she isn’t aware of some of her lapses and feeling the devastation when she is aware. It’s an absolutely beautifully written story, crafted with obvious care and great skill.

Alice is also an interesting character. She isn’t all sweetness and light. She’s stubborn and arrogant and snobbish when we first meet her, unwilling to accept even the tiniest flaw in herself or anyone else. Still Alice is a perfect Book Club book – there is so much to discuss with all of the changes Alice goes through and how they affect not only her both those around her as well. However, it will make every middle aged woman who reads it paranoid for a good long while about every set of misplaced car keys and every walk into a room that leads to the discovery that we can’t remember what we came in there for. Caveat emptor on that one, ladies.

Otherwise, it’s a deeply engaging, amazingly well conceived and executed story of a topic we’d all rather ignore. 5 stars out of 5 for Lisa Genova’s stellar writing and a solid recommendation, with the stipulation that it’s not going to be a topic everyone wants to spend their leisure time exploring.

– S. Millinocket

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Sue Millinocket
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