Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Review: Still Alice

Last night, I had another wonderful opportunity to attend a book group. I love getting the chance to sit with other women and discuss the thoughts and literary devices surrounding a piece of fiction. This month's object of discussion was the book, Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.

I think that I had been earlier put off by reviews of this book. I had read somewhere (perhaps BookPage) that the book was about a woman who calls her three children together to tell them that she has early onset Alzheimer's disease and plans to take her life when her life no longer seems worth living. This idea (a false representation of the book - she never articulates the suicide plan to her children and by the time she has failed her own litmus test of importance questions, she cannot take those steps) is quite reprehensible to me. But at the same time, I can fully understand a person getting to the point where they feel that they have nothing left to offer in life and would rather choose nothingness over struggle and diminished capabilities. I found myself internally yelling at Alice, reminding her that even if she has seemingly nothing to give, God has a reason for allowing her to continue existing until He chooses to take her (I sometimes need to yell this at myself - so I'm familiar with the refrain).

We had an excellent discussion about the book. I must admit, I was dreading the possibility of a very depressing discussion. The book moved me to tears throughout my reading. I readily put myself in the place of the characters and could entirely empathize with the devastation they were experiencing. Thankfully, our discussion was not depressing (even though, the other two book club members in attendance both had family members battling Alzheimer's). We delved into topics of identity, loss, perspective, denial, and honor.

Alice Howland is a Harvard professor teaching cognitive psychology and giving lectures on linguistics. Her identity has been largely driven by her intellectual successes. She interprets a period of scattered forgetfulness (losing words during lectures, misplacing her Blackberry) as symptoms of menopause. (Perhaps this triggered my intense identification with the book because I have experienced the mental blips of menopause, where my brain doesn't seem to function as effectively as it once did.) However, when she gets lost on a run in her own neighborhood, where she has run for decades, she finally approaches a doctor. At not quite 50 years of age, she is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's.

I have never had anyone close to me struggle with Alzheimer's. Indeed, the closest encounter I have had was observing the mother of an Army friend. She could not recognize her own children and asked repeatedly why they were in the dining hall at a camp she had attended for many, many years. It broke my heart and I could only imagine how heart-breaking it must have been for them.

Despite my lack of experience with the disease, I gained much from contemplating the idea of identity and what a person experiences when their identity is stripped. Perhaps, again, this is why I related so strongly to this book. When faced with the inevitable decline of her mental and verbal skills, her immediate thought is of the books she had always intended to read. Like a cancer patient, she must shift her perspective of life and focus only on what she wants to attempt to glean from the remaining moments of lucidity.

This book is very well-written and provides so much fodder for discussion and contemplation. Although I found it difficult to read (in the sense that it created such a deep sadness within), I could not put the book down. It is truly a book with a message for anyone and everyone. It is a reminder that, at the end of the day, the truly important things are relationships and the opportunity to love. What a great reminder for us all!


Lucy said...

I agree. I think the book transcends entertainment and steps into what I consider important fiction. I really enjoyed the power of this book to make me think and feel about what makes us us.

Wendy said...

Lucy - it is always refreshing to hear that someone else shared enjoyment of a book I have read. It was, indeed, a powerful book!

Amy Sorensen said...

I liked it too, although I felt differently about the suicide plan. Having watched my dad suffer like he has, I understand her desire to not experience what is in her future. There is nothing to be said of the end of Alzheimer's that is good or rewarding for the patient, unless of course there is some spiritual thing happening that I can't perceive. (Which part of me believes.) By the end the patient can't understand anything and has zero quality of life.

Sorry. Jumping off my horse now...

I agree with Lucy. Important book that more people should read. SO glad you found the same to be true!