Book of the Week
Still Alice : a novel / Lisa Genova.
I just loved this novel when I first read it and I enjoyed it just as much on reading it recently for a second time. Although sad, it is an interesting portrait of a particular individual and is informative about an important subject that affects thousands of people, either directly or indirectly. Despite the subject, the book is not written in a depressing or melodramatic way.
Dr. Alice Rowland is a 50 year old professor of psychology at Harvard University and is a leading scholar in the study of the mechanisms of language. This book traces her life each month beginning in September 2003 and ending in September 2005. Alice has recently been having problems with her memory and is concerned at becoming lost in a familiar area, forgetting the topic of the lecture she is about to deliver and introducing herself to a woman at a party to whom she had just been introduced. She consults a doctor and specialists and in January 2004 is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It is called early-onset because of her unusually young age in developing the disease.
From the information she has received from doctors, Alice finds out about the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and of the various stages of the disease from the beginning hints of a problem to its final stages. She visits a care home for people with the disease under the guise of finding a location for her mother and sees the condition of the residents. Alice also receives genetic testing to find out whether she has genetic mutations that predispose her to Alzheimer’s and finds she tests positive. This affects her three grown children, who want to know whether they have inherited the mutation.
Alice and her husband, a scientist, are determined to be proactive and prevent the disease from progressing any further. They agree that Alice should start taking a course of medication, including becoming enrolled in a drug trial. In May 2004 Alice enters a set of questions on her BlackBerry that she is to answer each day and if she is unable to, she is to open her computer file named “Butterfly” and follow the instructions. The questions are: What month is it? Where do you live? Where is your office? When is Anna’s [her daughter] birthday? How many children do you have? Her answers change month by month as her condition progresses and eventually she opens the “Butterfly” file, but this sequence doesn’t progress the way that Alice had expected it would when she first composed the questions.
The author is well qualified to write a book on this topic. She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University and is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer’s Association. This book has been endorsed by the National Alzheimer’s Association.
What is particularly interesting about the novel is the way in which we see Alice’s condition as seen through her eyes, including the symptoms she experiences, how the disease affects her life and how her family reacts to it. Some of her experiences are sad, such as receiving mostly negative feedback from her students and having to resign her position as professor. Some experiences are, it has to be said, humiliating. One day, returning from a run, she decides to make tea and puts the kettle on the stove to boil. But she can’t understand why the dishes are not in their usual locations in the cupboards so she empties all the cupboards as a start to re-organizing. Her neighbor comes into the kitchen and Alice finds out that she is in the neighbor’s house.
There are many questions that arise out of this story and many concern her family. Does her family behave in a reasonable way to her diagnosis? Would it help them to know if they have the genetic mutation for Alzheimer’s? Should her family put their own lives on hold for Alice? Could it be said that her husband abandons her at the end of the novel?
From a Boston Globe review: “After I read Still Alice, I wanted to stand up and tell a train full of strangers, ‘You have to get this book.’ “