Book Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova


I want to open this review by saying that I read this for my book club because our March theme will be “Page to Screen.”  My challenge to participants was to read a book that has been made into a movie, then watch the movie.  Compare, contrast, and just make general observations.  I wanted to watch this movie when it was nominated for a few Academy Awards last year, and I have every intention of watching it.  My review today is strictly on the book.

This book, as most people know, is about a woman who, just after turning 50, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  Alice Howland is a professor at Harvard University; clearly she is incredibly smart.  Her brain is wired to think far beyond the scope of most people.  This makes her diagnosis all the more tragic.

Before I get into the body of the story, I must mention that I listened to this book on audio, and was initially excited that it was narrated by the author.  I was slightly disappointed because Lisa Genova is an author, not an actor, and her reading was not that lively.  Her writing, however, was exquisite.  Her artful way with words really made the read pleasant.  I loved the idea of weather’s “flirtation with winter,” and the description of the cafe that had been “serving the chronically caffeinated long since before the invasion of Starbucks.”  More importantly, Genova was able to convey deeper emotions and true understanding of the mind of someone suffering such a debilitating disease.  When Alice first goes to the doctor, before they know what’s wrong with her, the doctor refers her to get an MRI.  A bran scan, Alice thinks, implies that they are concerned it may be cancer.  She refers to the potential tumor as a “predator,” and what better way to refer to any disease, really.  Diseases are predators, preying on the human body and making them weak.  It is a tragic reality.  The author touches the topic of cancer again later, after Alice has been struggling with the Alzheimer’s for a while.  Alice blatantly wishes she had cancer.  Cancer is something you can fight, with radiation and chemotherapy.  People rally around you when you have cancer, and they support you.  People with Alzheimer’s just get sympathy, pity, and there’s nothing to fight.  It just slowly takes away your consciousness.  This is a terrible and terrifying thought.

There are also three very impactful scenes I’d like to discuss.  They’re not necessarily spoiler scenes, but if you plan to read the book or watch the movie and don’t want to know what happens at all, you may want to stop reading here.  The first scene takes place at the grave site where Alice’s father is buried.  She knows she has the disease at this point but she hasn’t told her husband, John, yet.  Alice breaks down.  She is crying so hard that John goes to comfort her.  She does not mourn her father, who was a life long drunk and responsible for the car accident that killed her mother and sister years before.  It is  literally the toll that the burden of knowing she has Alzheimer’s Disease has placed on her shoulders.  I’m driving in the car when I’m listening to this and I’m yelling at the CD, “Tell John!  Right now is your chance, just tell your husband!”  A simple request, it may seem like, but Alice has always been independent and her husband is not only her partner in life, but also her intellectual equal.  This refusal to tell John is a matter of pride, but not in the way one would expect.  She fears losing his respect.

There is another scene where John and Alice are sitting together in the doctor’s office and they’re discussing the genetic mutation that has caused Alice’s disease, for which she has tested positive.  She asks if there is a chance that her kids will have the same mutation.  This is a heavy topic of conversation.  Should her adult children get themselves tested?  What about her oldest daughter who is trying to get pregnant, will this affect Alice’s grandchildren?

The last scene, and in my opinion the most powerful, was when Alice holds her twin grandchildren just after their birth.  Her daughter, Anna, tested positive for the genetic mutation, which means at some point in her life, Anna will suffer her mother’s fate.  The doctor’s were able, however, to remove the mutation from the cells which were implanted in Anna during in vitro treatments.  Alice holds her granddaughter, recognizes that it is her grandchild, then asks, “Will they get this disease like me?” Her daughter tells her they will not.  That is the most amazing moment in the whole book.  Living long enough to see one’s grandchildren is a tremendous blessing, but living with Alzheimer’s and not knowing if you’ll recognize them is scary.  Alice knows the child is her grandchild and can be at peace knowing they will never suffer like she did.

I absolutely loved this book, and I know it’s still early, but I’m pretty sure this book will be making my Top 5 at the end of the year.  This book had a powerful message that is relevant to all ages and every generation.  It raises awareness of a brutal disease with no cure.  This disease takes away what many cancer patients, even if they lose their fight with the disease, have still maintained until the end; peace of mind.

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