Saturday, 30 August 2014

Too close to home: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Read it and weep: Lisa Genova's Still Alice
I ran into a girlfriend while walking our dog on Monday morning. Last time I saw my friend - three weeks ago - she told me that her mum, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, had just gone into care. I asked how her mum was doing and was shocked when she told me she had died.

I knew her mum wasn't well, I knew she wasn't going to get any better, but still I was appalled by the speed of her decline. What made me even sadder is that I know so many, too many, people whose lives are touched by this terrible illness.

I didn't know much about Alzheimer's until I read Lisa Genova's amazing debut novel, Still Alice. It's a first person account of an extraordinarily bright woman's descent into dementia: Alice Howland is a mother and brilliant Harvard professor in the prime of her life who initially notices she is becoming forgetful and is eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.

Genova, an American neuroscientist, explores in painful detail what happens as the disease progresses and Alice's condition declines. It's been some years since I read this book, but I still remember reading about Alice getting lost in her own neighbourhood, believing she sees the floor of her house transformed into a gaping hole and being humiliated at work because she can't remember what she has or hasn't done or is supposed to do.

There are moments of great pathos. For example, Alice, once she knows what's happening to her, makes a pact with herself to end things once she has passed a certain point in her illness. She writes a note to herself in a special file on her computer, but by the time she finds and reads it again she is incapable of carrying out its instructions.

The book is as enlightening as it is unnerving - and I learned a lot from it as the scientific and medical aspects of the story are covered in a way that makes them easy to understand. The human pain - Alice's and her family's - is described unflinchingly too. Here is one of many memorable exchanges between Alice and her husband, John. She has asked him not to accept a great job offer in New York (they live in Boston) but to take a year's sabbatical and spend it with her:
"I don't think I can do it, Alice. I'm sorry, I just don't think I can take being home for a whole year, just sitting and watching what this disease is stealing from you. I can't take watching you not knowing how to get dressed and not knowing how to work the television. If I'm in lab, I don't have to watch you sticking Post-it notes on all the cabinets and doors. I can't just stay home and watch you get worse. It kills me."
"No, John, it's killing me, not you. I'm getting worse, whether you're at home looking at me or hiding in your lab. You're losing me. I'm losing me. But if you don't take next year off with me, well, then, we lost you first. I have Alzheimer's. What's your fucking excuse."
It's not all bleak though. Still Alice is also a warm and funny account of a high-achieving woman who loves her job and her family and is determined to make the most of the time she has left. I've just heard that the film of the book is due for release in 2015. Julianne Moore plays Alice with Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart in supporting roles. It'll be tough to watch, but I think it's a movie we all need to see.

In the meantime, if you haven't read it already, do pick up a copy of the book. September is Dementia Awareness month and given that 1,700 new cases of dementia are diagnosed each week in Australia and it's the third leading cause of death here, perhaps Still Alice should be required reading for us all.

I loved this book. Have you read it and what did you think?


  1. Oh yes, it was a bit too close to home for me as well - as my father 'suffered' from dementia. I recently read 'Elizabeth is Missing' another book about dementia (and family etc).

    Thanks for sharing this!

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    2. Hi Debbish,

      I'm so sorry to hear about your father.

      Thank you for the tip about Elizabeth is Missing, I'll look out for out it.

      Thanks for stopping by!