Book Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova
“This is a phenomenal book,” my friend Kay said as she loaned it to me. “Oh, good,” I replied. “What’s it about?” “Well, it’s about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s.” She paused, knowing how unappealing that must have sounded. “I promise you, it’s worth reading.”
If ANYONE else but this particular friend had said that, I would have passed on it, imagining they just liked tear-jerkers and emotionally heavy books (I usually don’t).
Thank goodness I read it.
It’s a book that changes you, makes you more compassionate for the issues facing everyone in the family of an Alzheimer’s patient, makes you more grateful for every healthy day you have, and inspires you to believe that you could, as this family in the story did, navigate the rough shoals of a dementia-like disease with love as the only guide. While heartbreaking, this story is strangely uplifting, and I believe it is an enormously important contribution to the public’s understanding and awareness of this disease. Never again will I avoid interacting with someone I know who suffers from dementia.
Dr. Alice Howland, 50 years old, is a cognitive linguistics professor at Harvard and a world expert in linguistics. She dismisses her initial memory lapses until the day she gets lost a few blocks from her home on a run that she has taken daily for years. The reader is taken into the surreal world of her initial awareness and analysis, through the trials and fears of seeking help and diagnosis, into the reactions of her successful husband and two grown daughters, and on to the fascinating and excruciating unraveling of life as she knew it, while hanging on desperately to what it is that makes her “Still Alice.” Besides the author’s masterful depiction of Alice’s experience, she gives us an extremely compassionate appreciation for the husband and daughters’ viewpoints and emotional reactions to the disease and to Alice’s increasingly unpredictable behavior.
The author is herself a Harvard neuroscientist and online columnist for the National Alzheimer’s Association. The testimonials from professionals and volunteers who work in the field of Alzheimer’s treatment and research are proof that she “got it right.”
I agree with the back-cover quote from a Boston Globe critic named Beverly Beckham: “After I read Still Alice, I wanted to stand up and tell a train full of strangers, ‘You have to get this book.'”
If you have never had a close-up experience with dementia, this book will help you be more compassionate when you encounter someone experiencing it. Reach out to them. Look for threads of awareness and normalcy, and don’t be put off by odd affect or inappropriate responses or behavior.
This book also reminded me of the toll this disease takes on caretakers and family members of a dementia patient. Their loved one’s behavior can be both maddening and heartbreaking, and they must deal with their own loss and adjustment as well as help their loved one. If we know someone in this position, they desperately need understanding and help.
Another compelling message of hope is that when the unthinkable happens in our lives — to ourselves or to a loved one — there seem to be inner reserves of strength and courage that can be called on.
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