“Still Alice” by Lisa Genova
Reviewed by Gerti
“Still Alice” by Dr. Lisa Genova is a fabulous book, well worth buying for your own library. It tells the story of Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor for whom being the smartest person in the room is very important. She has a husband and grown children, but they are all secondary to her career and status at the University at the outset of the story. Then it all starts to unravel.
As the book begins, Alice has been asked to speak at one of those conventions where professionals within a certain field get together to discuss innovations, slap each other on the back and drink too much. She loves public speaking. The first sign the reader has that something is wrong with Alice is when she forgets a word during her speech, and has to substitute “thingy.” A bit embarrassing, but which of us has not forgotten a word, especially in a stress-filled situation? This relatability makes it all the more terrifying what happens to Alice next.
She’s out on a jog, and forgets where she is just a few shorts blocks from home. Again, few of us have a perfect memory for places seldom seen. I often forget which exit to take off the highway to get to a rarely visited restaurant, or a store that I haven’t shopped at in a while, but I always know how to get home. This lapse bothers Alice enough that she heads to her family doctor, who sends her to a neurologist. And the diagnosis is devastating – Early Onset Alzheimer’s.
Her downward spiral now begins in earnest, although she handles the situation better than her spouse, who uses his scientific background to find the right combo of drugs to stave off her disintegration. By now, the reader sees that Alice’s perceptions are not entirely accurate, and as the book is written from her point of view, it makes us question whether we can trust her narrative voice.
The heart of the book is how people react to Alice. The daughter Alice understood the least, the one who decided to eschew her advice and forgo college for an acting career, is the one who takes care of Alice best. She is also the one who adjusts her plans to accommodate the deepening needs her mother has for a supportive caregiver. The husband, on the other hand, plans to plow on with his successful career, ready to head to NYC even against Alice’s wishes, saying that by the time they leave, she won’t even know where they are living. While it is true, it is also cruel, and shows his callousness in the face of this family tragedy.
Even though Alice’s thoughts and language skills regress, by the end of the book her understanding of nature and the true meaning of life grows, and she comes to know that her career was never as important as the people she loved. Her desire to live in the present is represented by her decision now to wear a butterfly necklace, something previously only worn on special occasions. She recognizes that every moment of life and every emotion that goes with it are precious. This is a story that will make you cry as well as question the meaning of your own life.