“Still Alice” Lisa Genova (Simon & Schuster) – novel review

Still Alice novel by Lisa GenovaAlice, a 50 year old Harvard Professor married to another professor with whom she has three now adult children, notices she forgets things and puts it down to the menopause or being stressed.  However, after panic attack when she forgets her way home, she seeks medical advice.  The diagnosis is early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  Alice faces having to tell her daughters and son who themselves may have it as there’s a genetic link.  The youngest daughter doesn’t want to take the test but the other two siblings do.  One’s clear, the other, the eldest daughter who is trying to get pregnant has her PS1 mutated gene too.  Alice has to come to terms with the fact that she has already passed her Alzheimer’s Disease onto her daughter simply because she didn’t know she was at risk.  Her elder daughter elects to use IVF so her embryos can be screened first, safeguarding her children.

Alice, meanwhile has to cope.  She creates a simple test with an instruction to go to a specific computer file if she can’t answer any of five simple questions.  Her husband goes into denial and then throws his energy into researching clinical trials and latest research.  Later her husband is offered a job in New York, which would mean moving away.  The two daughters argue he can’t move Alice who needs to be in familiar surroundings and near her grandchildren (the elder daughter is expecting twins).  Alice’s husband argues that Alice doesn’t know where she is and it wouldn’t make any difference if she were in New York.  Alice does know she doesn’t want to go to New York.  But this moment of dramatic tension is spent easily and doesn’t last beyond one episode.

Alice always had a strained relationship with her youngest daughter, Lydia, who refused to go to college and took acting classes instead.  One night the family go to see Lydia in a play.  Afterwards, Alice quizzes Lydia as if she’s a stranger, scaring her other children.  Ironically it’s Lydia who is most understanding and helpful.  Lydia doesn’t try to force Alice to remember things but accommodates her.  As Alice finds reading novels difficult, it’s Lydia’s acting that prompts her to try plays.  Lydia finds she can read parts to her mother and although her mother eventually loses the ability to follow the words, she can always interpret the emotions Lydia is trying to act so is able to give Lydia useful feedback.  A small compensation for the otherwise devastating effects of Alzheimer’s.

My one criticism is that the book does feel like a series of episodes chosen to illustrate a specific facet of Alzheimer’s Disease.  There is no dramatic tension so it feels as if it is an account of what happened when Alice developed Alzheimer’s Disease rather than a fully-fledged novel. 

That’s not to say it’s not worth reading.  “Still Alice” is definitely not “dull but worthy” either.  It is sensitively written and lacks sentimentality.  Although you know things are not going to get any better for Alice, the book is not depressing.  Alice herself  lacks self-pity, almost viewing Alzheimer’s Disease as her final challenge.  Certainly in the earlier stages she develops coping strategies that lead others to think she is coping better than she is.  The characters are very well drawn and you feel yourself fighting with Alice and hoping that if she can’t answer her five questions she somehow still fails to carry out her plan.

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