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.