If you can’t remember who you are, do you exist?
Are you only your memories? If you can’t remember your life, husband, children, career, who are you?
Alice Howland is brilliant! She is a professor of psychology, an expert in linguistics with tenure at a world-renowned university. She is called upon to speak at conferences and deferred to as an expert observer. She is happily married with three adult children; life is wonderful.
Alice is only 50 so when she can’t remember simple words, it is assumed that she is stressed, or peri-menopausal. Yet the opening paragraph of this novel tells a different story.
“Even then, more than a year earlier, there were neurons in her head, not far from her ears, that were being strangled to death, too quietly for her to hear them. Some would argue that things were going so insidiously wrong that the neurons themselves initiated events that would lead to their own destruction. Whether it was molecular murder or cellular suicide they were unable to warn her of what was happening before they died”.
From brief lapses, Alice deteriorates to the point where she is unable to find her way home from her daily run. For dramatic purposes, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is quickly given, but in the book’s notes, Genova, relates that early onset Alzheimer’s is frequently not diagnosed until many red herring illnesses have been investigated.
At the time of her diagnosis, Alice is asked to bring someone with her to appointments, because as the illness progresses, her observations are not the most reliable witness to the current position. It is interesting therefore that the author choses Alice to be the story teller. For me, this choice worked brilliantly. The subtle changes in nuance, vocabulary and the replacement of simple words with others, clearly tell the story, even if Alice is confused. She can’t remember her daughter Anna’s name, doesn’t know she even has a daughter, but she remembers Anna is “the mother”, and that is how she knows her from her other daughter.
There is a scene in the book which I found very poignant. Alice is trying to tell a story. Daughter Anna keeps telling her what she means to say, son Tom tells her to concentrate and youngest child Lydia, tells them to leave her alone to tell the story her own way in her own time. Alice wishes they would remember she still has her hearing and whilst she may have difficulty organising her ideas, she fully understands what is being said.
The member of the Howland family who seems the least sympathetic character, is husband John. Also a psychologist, John is single-minded in his devotion to his work. He clearly loves Alice and tries to find new studies which may slow the full onset of her disease. He does the right thing by Alice, but does much of it begrudgingly. As the disease takes firmer hold of Alice, he accepts an appointment at a new university in a different state. In some ways John is unlikeable, but he is very real; my opinion of him changed the more I read.
As a neuroscientist, Lisa Genova has immense understanding of Alzheimer’s and of the progression of the disease. As an author, she has the ability to tell a story we want to read. She never talks down to her audience; complex medical terms are reduced to concepts which someone without any medical training, such as yours truly, can easily understand. Still Alice is an excellently written book about a sad subject, but it is not a sad book. I highly recommend you read this book for the enjoyment it offers and/or to learn more about this insidious disease.
The last word belongs to Alice and the speech she delivers as the keynote speaker to the Dementia Care Conference. After introducing herself and listing her academic qualifications she continues:
“I am not here today however to talk to you as an expert in psychology or language. I’m here today to talk to you as an expert in Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t treat patients, run clinical trials, study mutations in DNA or counsel patients and their families. I am an expert in this subject because, just over a year ago, I was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
… Soon although I’ll still know what it is like, I’ll be unable to express it to you. And too soon after that I’ll no longer even know I have dementia.
… When will I no longer be me? Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique “me-ness” vulnerable to this disease? … Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? …
I am not someone dying. I am someone living with Alzheimer’s. I want to do that as well as I possibly can”.
About the Author
Lisa Genova, born 11 November 1970, graduated valedictorian, summa cum laude from Bates College with a degree in Biopsychology and has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Still Alice, Left Neglected, and Love Anthony. Self-published, Still Alice has spent over 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Among other awards, it won the 2008 Bronte Prize. There are over 2.1 million copies in print, and it has been translated into 31 languages. It was chosen as one of the thirty titles for World Book Night 2013. Still Alice is now a major motion picture from Sony Pictures Classics. Left Neglected, Lisa’s second novel, and her third novel Love Anthony were also New York Times bestsellers. Lisa’s fourth novel, Inside the O’Briens, is about a family living with Huntington’s disease. Lisa travels worldwide, speaking about Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, and autism. She lives with her family on Cape Cod.
Love books? Sign up for our Starts at 60 Bookclub, coming soon by filling out the form below. Receive deals, giveaways and updates on the books other over 60s are enjoying.