Saturday, August 14, 2010

Still Alice, a book review

A friend passed this book on to our family after she finished reading it with her twelve-year-old daughter, an exercise they undertook in memory of a grandmother who had died from Alzheimer's. The next to read it was my 21-year-old son, who told me, "This story is so sad. I could totally see this happening to our family."

Alice Howland, a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in linguistics, is a 49-year-old tenured Harvard professor when she begins to experience memory lapses and periods of disorientation. When she can no longer attribute her problems to stress, she pursues medical advice and receives the devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's, a genetic disease. A woman who has always reveled in the life of the mind, she now faces inevitable decline, loss, and death. Over the course of the next two years, her downhill course accelerates, as she oscillates wildly between increasing confusion and moments of clarity.

Alice isn't a terribly sympathetic character at first. Ambitious, career-focused, and self-satisfied, she is a merciless critic of her third child for skipping college to pursue an interest in acting. Nor are her family angels: on hearing of their mother's diagnosis, the first reaction of all three children is to wonder if they'll get Alzheimer's, too. And her husband finds her disease so threatening he often reacts with annoyance or a cold distance.

Yet no reader can fail to connect with Alice's sorrow and terror as she contemplates being avoided, pitied, and ignored, and as she worries about the day to come when she'll no longer recognize her loved ones. All the character relationships evolve in convincing and imperfect ways over the course of the book.

Still Alice
is rather clunkily written. Early on, it suffers from too much exposition, with character and relationships too often explained rather than shown. The early dialog, especially between clinician and patient, often feels wooden and didactic rather than individualized. But the writing gets better as the book goes on and Dr. Genova delves more deeply into Alice's own disconnected experience.

Besides, this isn't really just a novel. It's a wake-up bell for all of us who may someday face a dementing illness, and a call for understanding and compassion for all those who are currently suffering from one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a beautifully written review Penny. I hope to read it.

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