Monday, March 16, 2009
March Debut Book Pick: Still Alice
Even then, more than a year earlier, there were neurons in her head, not far from her ears, that were being strangled to death, too quietly for her to hear them. Some would argue that things were going so insidiously wrong that the neurons themselves initiated events that would lead to their own destruction. Whether it was molecular murder or cellular suicide, they were unable to warn her of what was happening before they died.
I love the poetic sensibility of this epigraph opening Lisa Genova’s debut novel Still Alice, a haunting tale about a poorly understood and largely untreatable condition - Alzheimer's Disease. A form of dementia, those afflicted suffer a slow, cognizant decline in memory, control of language and thought, and full functioning in every day activities most of us take for granted.
The author inflicts this dread illness on Doctor Alice Howland, a Harvard Professor of Psychology who, at age 50, has reached the pinnacle of career, family and love. Alice represents the state-of-the-art in her chosen field cognitive psychology, so when she blanks out on the words of a rehearsed lecture and forgets to attend meetings, she chalks her deficits to stress, exhaustion, and menopause. It isn’t until she loses herself in Harvard Square, a place she crosses daily, that she realizes something is amiss. She discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease - and there's little she can do to stop the condition’s advancement.
We follow Alice's slow spiral into dementia and her grappling with the consequences of the disease on others: her eldest daughter Anna, desperately trying to become pregnant, son Tom in medical school, and rebellious Lydia, the youngest daughter making her way as an actress in Los Angeles. But it is her husband John who struggles the most, torn between his own career and the needs of his increasingly debilitated wife.
There is a lyricism to much of the writing, especially near the end when Alice experiences rare, lucid moments:
I miss doing everything easily. I miss being a part of what’s happening. I miss feeling wanted. I miss my life and my family… I miss myself.
The author writes the story in third person from (largely) Alice’s point of view. This perspective allows some distance between the character and the reader, creating an interesting dynamic. At first, I wanted to sink in Alice's head, really feel her progression into madness; indeed, this inability to really be with Alice frustrated me at first. But about half-way into the story, I was relieved for the distance; Alice's mental instability made me squirm, the horror too close for comfort.
The medical facts and science are spot on - the author is, after all, Doctor Lisa Genova, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist. As a scientist myself, I’m always grateful when the facts in fiction are indeed facts.
This is an important and beautifully written book tackling a difficult, stigmatized subject. Read it – the story will move you.
About the Author... Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist, actor, and writer who lives in Massachusetts. Visit her at STILL ALICE.com
About the Press... I know, I know - Simon and Shuster is a tad bigger than the small, independent presses I prefer to feature. I made an exception this month because I feel this book is so important for understanding this brain disease, and because Lisa Genova initially took the smallest possible press approach – she originally self-published STILL ALICE in 2007. Hers is a story of what talent coupled with persistence can achieve.
PS. I'm double-blogging today - check out my guest post at EDITOR UNLEASHED on Blogging for Books