Still Alice by Lisa Genova
When Julianne Moore won her Oscar for portraying a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, I was intrigued. I hadn’t heard of Still Alice when it was initially published. Then, this last spring, one of my students had read the book and film for her adaptation project. That cemented it: I had to read it and watch it. I still haven’t seen the movie yet, but it had a terrific basis upon which to build.
Lisa Genova is herself a scientist and so understands the world she illuminates for her readers. She introduces us to Alice Howland, a brilliant psychology professor at Harvard, who starts to forget a few things here and there. Originally, she attributes these odd occurrences to stress and menopause. And then she forgets to get on a plane and go to a conference. And she doesn’t remember the wife of a colleague she just met. And she can’t find her way home on a routine jog. All these factors contribute to the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is no cure. Throughout the novel, we delve into Alice’s brain as she tries to find something good left in her life, even as her strongest component—her mind—is slowly stolen from her.
This novel is well done in that it brings you directly into Alice’s mind. You feel with her what is happening, and you can see how time changes and other cognitive functions are poisoned by the disease. It’s a good call on Genova’s part, in that you develop real empathy for Alice and begin to understand just how deeply Alzheimer’s impacts an individual. While there are some real weak spots in the writing (the butterfly metaphor is a bit overdone, and there are character descriptions that are completely unnecessary), the story is strong enough to be a compelling and enlightening read.