Book Review Still Alice

Still Alice: A Novel

Author: Lisa Genova

Publisher: Pocket Books A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2007, 2009

293 pages + Discussion Questions & A Conversation with Lisa Genova

CDN$ 17.50, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Not everything is as it seems at first blush. Dr. Alice Howland has been William James Professor of Psychology at Harvard University for twenty-five years. Her husband John is also a Harvard professor in the biology department. Alice loves her life of privilege and influence. She is bright, ambitious, and well respected by colleagues and students; travelling the globe to deliver lectures at numerous universities and professional conferences in addition to her duties at Harvard. She also had three wonderful children, who were on their way up in the world. All-in-all, life was grand.

Until, little by little, Alice’s life begins to go awry. At first there are little glitches in some of her lectures—she struggles to find the proper words to describe what she is attempting to communicate. Then there is one occasion when she went out for her daily run and felt lost, even though she was on her familiar route. On another occasion, she had planned to attend an important conference in a distant city and had completely forgotten about it, missing her plane. This was quite out of character for her, since she loved participating in such conferences.

Initially, Alice, her husband, and the children all attribute these irregularities to such factors as too much stress, depression, and menopause. However, after a series of tests, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice, John, and the children all struggle with the diagnoses—journeying from denial to the eventual acceptance of it. One would think that among Alice’s colleagues in the hallowed halls of academia, that there would be a built in support system with resources aplenty to draw on. However, it is most ironic that her colleagues often respond to Alice inappropriately by avoiding her—fearing that one day they too could be given the same diagnoses as Alice; which would make them vulnerable and ruin their careers. Such thoughts were too disturbing for them.

The author, herself a Harvard PhD in neuroscience, brilliantly develops Alice as a character living with early onset Alzheimer’s, telling the story from a first person perspective so that readers are given significant insights into Alice’s innermost being; likely evoking empathy and compassion within readers for Alice and others in her predicament.

One heartbreaking scene has Alice looking at pictures of her mother and sister who have both died in a car accident several years ago. Alice has forgotten this, and when she is told, it is as if she had heard the news for the first time, and she begins to weep without consolation.

In a more humorous scene, Alice had been reading Moby Dick. However, she had misplaced the novel somewhere and could not find it. So husband John got it on video. Shortly after that, Alice was going to use the microwave, opens it up, only to discover the novel inside, and she begins to laugh.

One of the tragic ironies explored in the novel is that here was a bright professor with expertise in psychology and linguistics and familiar with the attendant brain functions who was losing the very faculties of her own expertise. No matter how vigorously Alice and her husband pursued medications, diet and lifestyle choices to slow or reverse the early onset Alzheimer’s disease wreaking havoc on their lives; the favourable consequences were minimal. The disease, inch by inch, mercilessly chipped away at Alice’s being and identity. Yet, the title, Still Alice, is an apt one, since Alice at the end of the novel responds to her daughter’s inquiry in a most humane way. Moreover, as Alice leaves behind her academic career and focuses on her identity as a wife, mother and grandmother; there are some beautifully moving scenes that highlight her humanity.

This novel shall prove most helpful for healthcare professionals, families, and individuals interested in and living with Alzheimer’s disease. It not only develops a character diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in a realistic, in-depth fashion; it also explores how such a diagnoses effects the relationships of the person living with Alzheimer’s and their family, friends, colleagues, and healthcare professionals. Moreover, the novel shall be beneficial to readers interested in the ethical-moral issues surrounding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The discussion questions and conversation with Lisa Genova; along with recommended websites; make this novel a worthwhile resource for educational institutions. The fact that the National Alzheimer’s Association endorsed this volume attests to its value for a wide array of readers. For further information visit the following website.

 

 

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About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

4 Responses to Book Review Still Alice

  1. Peter Lurvey says:

    Thanks, Garth, for the well-written, compelling review. it’s on my Books To Buy list. Every pastor of greying congregations – and aren’t we all? – needs a handle on this insidious disease. In novel form, it makes the insights accessible and human.

  2. Don G Hall says:

    Well done Garth.
    My father-in-law (84) is in a nursing home due to
    Alzheimers. We had a recent visit. He’s “Still Ed”
    in that he shakes your hand and can still form a smile
    with a bit of a twinkle in the eye but I’m sure that as soon as I was gone I was also gone from whatever memory he has left.

  3. Great review, Garth. Sounds like a very compelling book. By putting it in the first person it becomes easier to imagine oneself in her shoes. Thanks for sharing this resource with us. Peace, Renita

    Rev. Renita Falkenstern
    Manager of Mission Effectiveness
    The Good Samaritan Society
    8861 75 Street
    Edmonton, Alberta
    T6C 4G8
    Ph: (780) 431-3780
    Fax: (780) 431-3795
    rfalkenstern@gss.org
    http://www.gss.org

  4. DimLamp says:

    Yes, Peter and Renita, your point about the genre in which the book is written is important, and does indeed make it more accessible, human and fosters a sense of compassion, realizing that yes, this could happen to me. Don, what you say is true, that’s why the present moments you spend with your father-in-law are so important, remember Paul Tillich used to speak of the “eternal now,” an apt description of being with folks like Ed.

    Thanks for your comments 🙂

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