Review: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Left Neglected is the latest from Still Alice author, Lisa Genova.  Still Alice (reviewed HERE) was one of my favorite books of 2009, and was discussed and well-loved by my book club.  I bought Left Neglected on the Nook the minute I heard it was out.

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

In an instant, life can change forever.

Sarah Nickerson is a high-powered working mom with too much on her plate and too little time. One day, racing to work and trying to make a phone call, she looks away from the road for one second too long. In the blink of an eye, all the rapidly moving parts of her over-scheduled life come to a screeching halt. A traumatic brain injury completely erases the left side of her world. As she struggles to recover, she discovers she must embrace a simpler life, and in so doing begins to heal the things she’s left neglected in herself, her family, and the world around her.

My review:

Sarah is busy.  She and her husband and their nanny juggle parenting responsibilities for their 3 kids, and 80 hour work weeks are common.  They live in an affluent neighborhood, own a vacation home in Vermont, and race through their days at a breakneck pace until the minute everything changes in a horrible crash.

Sarah’s accident leaves her with a traumatic brain injury called Left Neglect Syndrome, a fascinating condition in which there is damage to the right hemisphere of the brain that causes the patient to experience a deficit in attention and failure to recognize the left side of their body or space.  They are unaware of the left of things.  Left is no longer there.  It is non-existent.

While reading about Sarah’s disregard for all things ‘left’ I tried to imagine that.  It’s not a visual problem and that’s the only way I could picture it.  Not seeing the left is one thing, but not realizing you have a left hand, or not being able to fathom where it might be, is quite another.  Only noticing things on the right (for instance, only your right leg) makes it difficult to walk.  So many things we take for granted, like getting dressed, become huge, time-consuming hurdles.

Sarah’s mother comes to help with the kids during Sarah’s months-long rehabilitation, which is a blessing and a curse.  Their relationship is complicated and distant initially due to a childhood tragedy and maternal neglect, but one of the blessings (yes, blessings) of Sarah’s brain injury is the time it affords her to grow closer to her mother and repair that relationship.  Another blessing of the brain injury:  she comes to know and appreciate the special challenges of her young son Charlie, recently diagnosed with ADD.

Sarah gets used to her new normal and learns to adapt to her special needs, but it’s a bumpy road.  She needs to come to terms with who she was and how things have changed.  It’s a painful process but not without it’s joys.

Lisa Genova is Harvard-educated with a degree in Biopsychology and a Ph.D. in Nueroscience.  She creatively pours all that scientific knowledge of the brain into her writing.  In Left Neglected she makes you understand and really feel what it means to be brain injured, just as she did in her wonderful debut novel, Still Alice, about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Left Neglected is terrific and compelling.  And if there is a moral to the story, I’d say it’s:

Slow down, people!  Pay attention.  The journey is the destination.

Note to self:

Sometimes I am truly busy.  I have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.

Other times I am just busy being busy.  I tell myself I thrive on multi-tasking and I think I do it well, but does anyone really need to do 14 things at once?  Must we make good use (or, rather, multiple use) of every second of every day?

I used to make phone calls while driving because I felt that driving was sort of forced down-time and what a perfect way to make it productive.  I looked around me and saw other drivers doing the very same thing.  I did it all the time until they enacted a law here in California forbidding it.  My rational brain agreed with the law and believed that distracted drivers are a true danger to themselves and others.  But even so I didn’t think it applied to me, so I kept doing it for awhile even after the law took effect.  It was a hard habit to break.

But I am now reformed.  Not because of a horrible accident or a close call or even a ticket, but because of a book.  Thank you, Lisa Genova.  I know it’s dangerous and realize I am not so special that it can’t happen to me.

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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