Still 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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