Thursday, March 10, 2011

Still Alice Book Review

The brain is undoubtedly the most valuable part of the human body, a unique machine that hums with memories, emotions, and ideas. In Still Alice, Alice Howland, an esteemed professor at Harvard is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and faces the cold certainty that her quick, bright mind will disintegrate into a wispy shadow of what it once was. Although Still Alice is a work of fiction, author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University, creates a realistic and believable portrait of Alzheimer’s.

At age 50, Alice is a successful and respected cognitive psychology professor at Harvard. She thrives on the intellectual excitement of teaching, researching, and collaborating with her colleagues. The proud mother of three grown children, Alice and her husband John are comfortable with the routine of their lives. However, Alice’s sense of stability is disrupted when she cannot recall words in lectures, becomes lost in her own neighborhood, and must organize her life with Post-it Note reminders. Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and she and her family must deal with the disconcerting and heart-wrenching process of her mind slipping away from her.

Alice’s story is a meaningful one, and it is portrayed gracefully and poignantly. A recurring theme is Alice’s fight to live a worthwhile life and maintain a sense of purpose even as her world and her loved ones become increasingly unfamiliar. Themes such as this one are enhanced by Genova’s realistic, honest character development of Alice and each of her family members. Alice’s disease affects her three grown children in distinctly painful ways.

Her loving husband John becomes more distant while her errant daughter Lydia reaches out to her mother, and her children Tom and Anna grapple with their mother’s decline in the midst of their own busy lives. By exploring the evolution of these relationships, Genova creates very real characters who add unique perspective and depth to the novel.

Genova’s writing style occasionally can be repetitive and over informative when she is describing the science behind Alzheimer’s. These sections tend to be wordy and difficult to grasp for those who are not scientifically inclined. However, despite being a bit tedious, the neurological references lend credibility to the novel. It is clear that Genova has extensive knowledge of medical and personal aspects of Alzheimer’s.

As a teen reader, I was surprised by how moved I was by Still Alice. My parents and many of my peers’ parents are nearing 50 years old – Alice’s age when she first begins to notice the signs of Alzheimer’s. I cannot imagine a parent developing this disease and losing the ability to live and think independently. According to the Mayo Clinic, 5 to 10 percent of all Alzheimer’s patients develop symptoms before age 65.

At least 200,000 individuals suffer from the early-onset of this disease. For anyone my age, losing a parent to this cruel disease would be a life-altering experience. Alice’s story teaches lessons about being grateful for relationships that are often taken for granted. Given the number of people who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Still Alice is an entirely relevant read that is touching, intriguing, and thought-provoking.

A novel about Alzheimer’s could repel skeptical readers. However, Still Alice is not morose, dull, or melodramatic. It is an intelligently written novel that blends the cold truth of science with the tragically beautiful, intimate story of a woman and her family who must cope with this truth.

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