Author: Lisa Genova
Still Alice was originally published by Simon & Schuster in 2009. It has now been re-released with a new cover in conjunction with the major motion picture, starring Julianne Moore, released on January 29th.
I hadn’t heard of this one before but the premise certainly grabbed my attention. Still Alice is the story of early onset Alzheimers sufferer Alice Howland and is told in the third person from her perspective.
Alzheimers is not going to be pleasant for anyone, there is no preferred age or profession, but I found that this story touched me profoundly because of Alice’s age and profession.
Alice Howland is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard, a world-renowned linguistics expert and fifty years old. This is a brilliant mind, a challenged mind and certainly an exercised mind but Alzheimers didn’t care and took it anyway. It started with small moments of forgetfulness or disorientation, attributed to being overstressed, menopausal and a normal part of the aging process. The diagnosis is not easy to swallow, for Alice or her husband.
Still Alice takes us from the early signs through to the late stages of the disease. From a time when Alice was still lecturing and a respected member of her field, needing only to leave herself lots of extra notes and reminders through to her no longer being able to work and needing more and more care.
At one of her earliest appointments the neurologist tells Alice she is an unreliable source of information about what’s going on and yet it is her that tells her story, and she tells it well. Touching, heartbreaking and sympathetic Alice is a character you can’t help but feel for. She was at the peak of her career with plans ahead of her and they were all well and truly taken away from her, one slowly atrophying neuron at a time.
Language is one of the touchstones of Alice’s career, her public speaking has always been exemplary and extensive travel one of the highlights of her calendar so I found it to be doubly tragic that language was one of the first areas to let her down. An increase in disorientation made solo travel inadvisable and the highly independent Alice is suddenly at the mercy of her husband’s busy schedule.
Still Alice takes us through the stages of grief as well as the disease, we are party to the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the prayers and ultimately the acceptance.
The book is fiction but Genova certainly did her homework and worked hard to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s and give a voice to its sufferers.
Alice fights to retain her sense of self and to let everyone know that she is still here, she is still useful and she still has a voice. Her story illustrates the lack of support for early onset sufferers and the stigma felt by them. Alzheimers isn’t necessarily life threatening so as an early onset sufferer Alice could have 30 or 40 years to live with this disease, how is a woman of her independence and reputation going to cope as she slowly loses herself, and can see herself getting lost. She puts in place her own contingency plans with the hope that she can follow them through before it’s too late.
Alice’s family are all career driven and for the most part intellectually focused. John is a biologist dedicated to his work at Harvard, son Tom is a surgeon, daughter Anna is a lawyer and so is her husband. Lydia, the baby of the family, chose to pursue an acting career instead of going to college and her relationship with her mother has always been fractious to say the least. Alice wanted her to go to college and study for a backup plan but Lydia refused. In all the changes faced due to Alice’s disease the most rewarding is the change in her relationship with Lydia.
Still Alice is haunting, it’s poignant and it certainly shines a spotlight on early onset Alzheimer’s. It raises valid questions and issues that we should all keep in mind when dealing with sufferers. I am interested to watch the movie and see how the extremely talented Moore brings Alice to life.
At times Still Alice is a little hard to follow and connect with but I think that’s all part of getting inside of Alice’s head, it is her disconnection that we are feeling. A promising debut which leaves me wondering about what will be next from Genova.
A selection of our lucky readers will be reading Still Alice as part of the Beauty and Lace Book Club so I will be interested to see what they have to say about the book.
Please be advised that there may be spoilers contained in the comments below.