Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice finalStill Alice by Lisa Genova is the heartbreaking and terrifying story of 50 year old Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard professor, wife, and mother of three who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

I can’t read about any disease, however unlikely or impossible, without starting to feel like I have it myself. Lyme disease, lupus, swine flu, prostate cancer- it doesn’t matter what it is. If it says something about fatigue (hmm, I’m tired), frequent headaches (hey, I had a headache yesterday!), flu-like symptoms (I’m hot- well it is summer), or mental confusion (where did I put my glasses??), I convince myself I must have it.

Such was the case with Still Alice. In the first 100 pages or so, I was practically panicked thinking I needed to see my doctor immediately. Thankfully I calmed down enough to finish the book and realize that maybe I’m ok after all.

This is a great book told from the point of view of the sufferer rather than a family member or caregiver. I was so completely engrossed in the story I felt like I was going through everything right alongside Alice. If you ever wondered what it was like to have Alzheimer’s- what it really feels like to be the person with the disease- to understand the fear, confusion, panic, and dread- read this book. Genova is able to realistically take the reader through the progression of the disease and the changes it brings on for both Alice and her family.

Initially Alice’s mental hiccups are the same variety as anyone might have. Blanking on a word, misplacing keys, that sort of thing. We all do it. Alice attributes it to middle age, impending menopause, stress. Except, she’s not feeling stressed, and she hasn’t gone through menopause yet.

One day while out for a run near the home she’s lived in for 25 years, she gets inexplicably turned around and can’t figure out how to get home. That’s a lot harder to explain away, so she sees the doctor and soon has this awful diagnosis. Through genetic testing she learns she carries a mutated gene responsible for EOA, which means her children could have it, and so could her future grandchildren. Just the thought of it is devastating.

But even as the disease is robbing Alice of her memories, she retains her sense of humor. There is a scene where she is struggling to put on a sports bra so that she and her husband can go for a run. Finally she screams and her husband runs into the bedroom.

“What’s happening?” asked John.

She looked at him with one panicked eye through a round hole in the twisted garment.

“I can’t do this! I can’t figure out how to put on this fucking sports bra. I can’t remember how to put on a bra, John! I can’t put on my own bra!”

He went to her and examined her head.

“That’s not a bra, Ali, it’s a pair of underwear.”

She burst into laughter.

“It’s not funny,” said John.

She laughed harder.

“Stop it, it’s not funny. Look, if you want to go running, you have to hurry up and get dressed. I don’t have a lot of time.”

He left the room, unable to watch her standing there, naked with her underwear on her head, laughing at her own absurd madness.

-from page 199

Alice compensates for the holes in her memory in all kinds of ways. Her Blackberry helps her to remember appointments, and she becomes a great list maker, although she can’t always make sense of her lists. She devises a way early on to gauge how she’s doing, and a back up plan in case she’s not doing well, a letter she has written to her sicker self. She keeps the letter in a file labeled Butterfly on her computer. However, by the time she needs the back up plan, she can’t retain the information long enough to put it into place.

Later in the book, when her symptoms are more severe, when she’s lost so much, I cried. I pretty much cried through the last third of the book- not horrible sobbing but a constant river of tears. This is a devastating disease that takes everything away. Everything-and at breakneck speed. But I never felt manipulated by Still Alice. It is by no means a sappy tearjerker. It’s just very tragic, compelling, and real, but hopeful too.

I loved Still Alice and can’t recommend it highly enough. It offers such insight and would make a wonderful gift for anyone touched by this devastating, incurable disease in some way. It speaks volumes about love and compassion. It would be especially good for book clubs because there is so much to discuss. I read it for my own book club and can’t wait to talk about it.

Very Highly Recommended!

I was surprised to learn that Lisa Genova self-published her book first, before it was picked up by Simon & Schuster. Read more about Lisa Genova and her amazing debut novel HERE. Discussion questions can be found HERE. And for an excerpt, click HERE.

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49 Responses

  1. I loved this book.

    • That could have been my 4 word review “I loved this book”. I got a little wordy, LOL.

      • I’ve been searching for someone that I could ask the question – what did I miss? When Alice opens Butterfly and then John gives her a glass of water and a handful of pills – I thought that was the end, she had the control over the situation that she wanted. What happened? Next paragraph she’s getting ready for the Harvard Commencement. She felt sad and proud, powerful and relieved – and then the control was taken from her.

      • Corri, I read the book four months ago and lent it out, so I don’t have it to refer back to. However.. from my memory.. I don’t think the reader ever knows if John read the Butterfly file that Alice left up on the computer screen (if he knew about it) or if he had just interrupted her frantic search and was there to give her her regular medication. I think she got interrupted and that was just long enough for her to forget the whole thing.

  2. Oh my – I feel like I need to read that book after your review.

  3. It sounds like a fantastic book. I’m going to add it to my list. I’m afraid it might make me cry, though…

  4. Sounds so good……I get a little weird myself when I get into a book like that.

    • You’ll think about every time you ever forgot what you were doing- I did it just now- I went into the pantry for something and couldn’t remember why I walked in there until I got back to the computer. Doh!

  5. You must be related to my coworker. If someone mentions that the children of a friend of a friend of a friend has chickenpox, then she’s convinced her kids will come down with it tomorrow. I’m constantly telling people at work to NOT tell her things. :-D

    I want to read this one, although I don’t know that I’m currently in the mood to cry through a book. Because I totally would.

    • JIll it’s so good but particularly scary for anyone even close to Alice’s age- you’re a little younger than me but I’m only a few years younger than Alice, which made it that much more real.

  6. Thank you for such a thoughtful review. I have known several people who have died from Alzheimer’s so this will be a tough read for me but I am convinced that I need to put this on my TBR list.

  7. I really LOVED this book. It read like non fiction (i thought).

  8. I’m like you. . .I usually stay away from “illness lit,” but this sounds amazing!

  9. This book has left such an impression me. I am astounded at Lisa Genova’s ability to create such a realistic character that has me STILL thinking about her today when I read the book months ago. I want to call Alice and ask her how she’s doing. I have never felt this attached to a character before.

    You mentioned adopting the disease that you read about – my friend is like that, too. She had a difficult time getting through this one due to that fact. I’ve been convincing her she’s okay ever since!

    • I feel the same way, like Alice is a real person. I want to check on her too, and check on Anna and Lydia as well. I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in a book.

  10. i am dying to read this–your review and the comments speak volumes for the book…except i know someone who has EOA and it’s a horrifying thing to watch. she was a young and vibrant mom of two 20-somethings…and in a few years, she’s been reduced to a shell of herself. i’m not sure if i could handle this novel, but it sounds like a great story. it’s also inspiring to see a self-published author picked up by a publishing house. great review, lisa!

    • Nat, then I would recommend it even more for you than anybody else. You already know what the disease does to a healthy, vibrant person so that part is not going to come as any surprise. It will help you empathize with your friend. I hope you read it. I’d send you my copy but I’ve already passed it on to my mother.

      Which reminds me- thanks to Lisa at Lit and Life for passing her copy to me!!

  11. I have this one. I must read it. I’m like you though. I’ll worry that I have the disease too.

  12. Good job. I read and could not be torn away.

  13. I loved this book, and like you, found myself sobbing through much of the end. I’ve never read something like this before, where you basically watch the disease progress from the victim’s perspective. Heartbreaking.

    I was so moved by it that I practically forced my husband to read it as well. He’s a med student, and I really felt that this book could give medical practitioners a unique and helpful perspective on suffering. He also loved it.

    • What a great idea to have your med. student hub read the book! It’s awful when doctors only see the disease and not the person.

      My hub is not a reader, unfortunately, but I did talk to him about the book while I was reading it. He forgets things a lot and thought it sounded really frightening.

  14. This sounds like such a strong book, something that would really interest me, especially after reading your review. I’ve seen this book at the bookstore, but I’ve been hesitant to read it for a reason you said yourself : “I can’t read about any disease, however unlikely or impossible, without starting to feel like I have it myself.” (It’s mainly the reason why I can’t watch Grey’s Anatomy or House or any hospital series) But your review makes me feel like I might be missing something… so I should probably give it a try!

    • I hope you do. It was a fantastic reading experience. Usually I can read a book and move on to another 5 minutes later. I couldn’t do it with this one. Had to find somebody to discuss it with first.

  15. Terrific review! I read this for book club and it was good discussion. This book has staying power – I think I like it more and more as time goes by. (I just sent you an email.)

  16. I’m late getting to your review, but this book’s already hanging around my house in TBR Purgatory. My mother passed away ten years ago, a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s. She died at age 69, after seven years in a nursing home, but the changes started when she was in her mid-fifties.

    I’m almost dreading reading this book because of that family history, but I will…and since the reviews are so good, it will be sooner rather than later. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lisa!

    • Florinda- I still haven’t heard back from the pub. about our idea but will let you know if/when I do. It’s 4th of July week so maybe she’s on vaca.

  17. I have gone to pick this book up several times. Alzheimer’s runs in our family and it’s heartbreaking. I’m just not sure yet I could make it through this book without breaking down.

    • I think if I had a relative with the disease I’d be very glad to have read this. It would help to know how it all happens and to understand what it’s like for the person with the disease. I hope you read it.

  18. I didn’t realize that this was a self-published-picked-up-by-big-house success story … STILL ALICE has been on my radar, but I haven’t picked it up yet.

    I liked your line about not being manipulated by the book, that it was emotional, but you didn’t feel played.

    I’ll push this up on the list, thanks, Lisa!

    • I didn’t realize it was self published either! Made me feel like quite the blogging snob when I thought about how many self published books I’ve turned down for review.

  19. Oh boy, I don’t think my hypochondriac self should read this book (even though it is highly unlikely a 23-year-old has Alzheimer’s)! It sounds emotionally draining!

    Great review…I like that the author shows the side of dealing with the disease in everyday ways, rather than just illustrating the suffering aspect of it.

  20. I think this will be one to read at home only–crying inexplicably in public might make people wonder. I don’t usually cry while reading but it doesn’t sound like I’m going to make it through this without crying.

  21. Why did I think you already reviewed this??? Strange. This sounds amazing, and I think I’ll suggest it to my bookclub for next year. My only reservation is that one member’s mother in law suffers from what was early onset alzheimer’s and she knows firsthand how devastating this is. Not sure that she needs to read about it, you know?

  22. Great review Lisa! I certainly can relate to those mental moments and was wondering if I was the only one that felt that way while reading the book. Can’t wait to discuss.

  23. I don’t know that I would have picked up this book if it hadn’t been voted on by my book club. I too am reluctant to “want to cry” or read a “sad” book. Then again as the author says, for some there is a stigma about alzheimers. Like it’s a dirty word or the subconscious fear that we too could get this awful disease. BUT, I am so glad I read this book. It is an amazing “personal” account of the spiraling mental deterioration this disease causes and how it take away the very essense of the person…their memories, thoughts and communication skills. Very powerful. Reads like a non-fiction account. The author really captured it all in this one. READ IT!

  24. I think you and I could be long lost sisters – neurotic ones, but still. I do the same thing about diseases/illnesses. If I hear someone had pink eye – my eyes itch. Someone in the kids’ school had lice? Yikes – my head itches. Sick after a flight – must be swine flu.
    Great review. I just passed this book by over at paperback swap, but I’m going back to request it. Thanks.
    Michelle

  25. I have heard that this book is devastatingly sad. That’s ok though, because sometimes I like a tear jerking read. Books like this one turn me into a bit of a hypochondriac too, so you aren’t alone there! I am putting this one on my wish list. Thanks!

  26. Wow great review…. this one sounds like it could really be good and a difficult read too. That is a scary topic for me…. as independent as I am … to think that one day I may just start to forget….

  27. I see this book everywhere and now I really want to read it. So many books about this subject are from a family member’s POV (The Story of Forgetting) so this sounds intriguing.

    Thanks for commenting on my post about how ironing helps my writing. LOL!

    Yo Sista!

  28. You can watch my video interview with author Lisa Genova here:

    http://bolstablog.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/genova/

    Phil Bolsta
    bolstablog.com
    Author of “Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything” (www.sixtysecondsbook.com)

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