Genova, L. (2009). Still Alice. New York, NY: Pocket Books. $15.00, paper. ISBN-13:9781439102817

According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, 5.1 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. 5 % of those people suffer from the tragic early-onset form that can strike a person in their 50’s or even younger. In the award-winning New York Times Best-Seller novel, Still Alice, author Lisa Genova paints a bittersweet portrayal of a woman with a strong will and a memory that is fading. Alice Howland is a respected Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She is 50 years-old and a mother of three. She is married to John Howland, a Professor of Biology, at Harvard University. Alice also suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and it is changing life as she knows it. The book is written as if a secret onlooker is journaling Alice’s life. Instead of having chapters, the book is broken down chronologically into months starting with September 2003 and ending with September 2005. The author writes the book in such a way that the reader is drawn in and has no other choice than to share in the deep emotions felt by Alice and those close to her. The novel is emotionally charged, but it can also be emotionally draining. Still Alice is a book that reaches out to anyone who suffers from or is close to someone who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice Howland leads an extremely high-paced life. As a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, she has many responsibilities such as; lecturing, research, speaking engagements, conferences, and mentoring a graduate student who is working on his dissertation. As a wife she helps support her husband in his research and other responsibilities. She is also extremely athletic and enjoys running several miles a day. Alice makes it clear that running is very important to her. Alice also makes it clear that education is of the utmost importance to her and pushes this belief on her adult children.

Alice’s memory, the one thing that has given her such prestige and honor, begins to fail her. The first time the reader is presented with a glimpse of what is to come is when Alice speaks at Stanford University and forgets a key word in her presentation. The word was right on the tip-of-her-tongue. Unfortunately, her neurons were not able to connect and she was forced to continue her presentation without the use key word. She begins to misplace things like her Blackberry. The reader is shown just how serious these little episodes are when Alice is running in Harvard Square, a place that she has visited numerous times, and cannot remember the route back to her house. This was the last straw for Alice and she begin doing research on her symptoms. At first she believed that her symptoms were due to menopause. When she determined that was not the case, she sought professional medical advice. This created more questions than answers. Alice, not knowing where else to go, went to a neurologist who put her through many tests and examinations.

The neurologist concluded that Alice had early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. This was a devastating blow to Alice as it would be to anyone burdened with this news. At first, Alice hides this information from everyone including her husband. However, after not being able to remember certain things, as well as some unexplained embarrassing actions, she confessed to her husband. A little time later together they told their children and those whom they were close to. Alice told no one at Harvard University until several months into her diagnosis. When she was questioned by her supervisor about negative evaluations from some of her students, she finally came clean. From that point on she felt like an outcast. She felt that no one respected her. She felt like a leper. In many cases that was exactly how she was treated.

Alice’s disease progressed quickly. Memories, names, faces, and the things she knew so well began slipping rapidly. Alice devised a plan. She did not want to be a burden on her family and friends so she created a list of five questions. She would ask herself these questions every day. The moment she could not answer just one of the questions she was to follow the directions stored on her laptop under a file named “butterfly”. These directions were for her to swallow a bottle full of tranquilizers, lie in bed, and die in her sleep. Fortunately for Alice, as her ability to answer the questions dwindled so did her ability to remember to ask herself the questions. The novel concludes with Alice who is now much different than her former self. The beliefs, values, and walls she had formed throughout her life had been shattered. Many of the changes limited her. However, after the changes took place she was able to connect with her family in new ways and on a deeper level. In the end Alice is Still Alice. She is just a different version.

The author, Lisa Genova, has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University, taught Neuroanatomy at Harvard University, and has done brain research at Yale Medical School. Her goal in writing this book, as well as all the others she has written, is to inform the public about neurological diseases using a platform that is easily accessible. Her background and motive gives her the authority needed to write this book. Still Alice draws the reader in, grabs tight, and does not let go. The story can be difficult at times to read with the myriad of emotions that ebb and flow throughout. However, with each new page the author draws the reader in closer still. From the start, I felt respect for Alice. She was accomplished and driven. She had built a beautiful life with a wonderful family. The flaws she had, in her relationship with her daughter Lydia, only served to make her seem more human. As Alice’s disease progressed, I felt a deeper connection to her. Her pain and frustration felt real. The pain and suffering felt by her husband John and other family and friends was surreal. When I try to place myself in John’s shoes I cannot imagine what it would be like. The author was brilliant at opening the eyes of the reader to the world of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. This theme was presented in such a way that little to no previous understanding of neurological diseases was needed. This novel left me with a new understanding of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and a deeper compassion for those suffering from this tragic disease and the people that are close to them.    

Advertisements