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Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Updated: Jan 4

Many novels have been written with a desire to educate. Not many are very good. Didactic purpose can overwhelm the heart of fiction, which is storytelling.

Still Alice is different. Written by an author with a doctorate in neuroscience and published in 2007, Still Alice is the story of a university professor who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Genova tells Alice’s story from the inside.

In the preface to the 2009 edition of Still Alice, Genova writes: ‘ My query letter seeking representation for Still Alice was rejected or ignored by 100 literary agents. The few who asked to read the manuscript felt that Alzheimer’s was too heavy, scary and dark, and that readers would shy away from the subject. It was too big of a risk, and they passed on it. I pressed on and self-published Still Alice, selling copies from the trunk of my car for almost a year.’

When Still Alice was eventually picked up by Simon and Schuster it spent 59 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. It has been translated into 37 languages. It has been made into an award winning movie and there’s been a stage production. I always have felt the world of agents and publishers has a low opinion of the fortitude of the reading public. We, the readers, are willing to feel and willing to learn. Just give us a good story at the same time.

The impetus for Genova’s book came from realizing how little is written from the point of view of the person with the disease. There are medical discussions galore. There are support groups and advice for carers. But there is so little for the Alzheimer sufferer herself. Genova brings this fact directly into Alice’s story, having her set up a support group for other Alzheimer sufferers in her area: a place where they can talk, and not be talked around, above or about.

Near the beginning of the novel Dr. Alice Howland is introduced to an audience as, “the eminent William James Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.” The abundance of capital letters points up her status as an important person. A few pages earlier she was seen as a dynamic wife of another Harvard professor, and mother of three grown children. She is busy, in control and a little domineering, especially in her relationship with her youngest daughter. Alice knows best.

About forty minutes into the lecture she is giving she gets stuck. “She simply couldn’t find the word. She had a loose sense for what she wanted to say, but the word eluded her.” It’s the first indication that something is wrong. But so what? We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I know I have, and in front of a class. That technical language can disappear into the back of one’s brain so easily.

But a few days later she gets lost during her routine run near her home. “She wanted to continue walking but stood frozen instead. She didn’t know where she was …She knew she was in Harvard Square, but she didn’t know which way was home... ‘ Please stop this,’ she whispered. She opened her eyes. Just as suddenly as it had left her, the landscape snapped suddenly back into place.”

There is a page of words in the spaces where I’ve put the ellipses in that quote. Genova’s writing is detailed and evocative. You feel Alice’s mounting panic along with her.

Genova has chosen a highly intelligent woman as her protagonist and a particularly aggressive form of Alzheimer’s as her villain. She needs Alice’s smart analytical brain to tell her own story. She needs the fast progressing disease to keep up the pace. But the empathy that flows from the author is not only for the loss of a good brain, it is for everyone who suffers from this disease that robs people of their very essence.

One of the most memorable passages of the book is a family gathering when Alice and her husband tell their children about Alice’s illness. It’s too long to quote here but suffice it to say that everyone immediately starts talking about themselves, as if Alice isn’t there. They don’t ignore her completely, that’s what’s so clever about this writing, but it’s enough to give the feeling that that’s what’s coming.

Dark, heavy and scary? Scary, yes. I’m sure everyone reading this knows of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. Everyone fears it for themselves and the people they love and care for. Dark? Well what is dark? It’s serious. It doesn’t paint everything rosy. Dark is good. Heavy, no. this book is as light as air. It’s light with love and truth.

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