Monday, March 8, 2010

Still Alice by Lisa Genova *****

This is a little different - ok, a LOT different - from the romance books I usually read. Still Alice is told from the POV (third person) of a woman in her 50s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers.

Having been affected by Alzheimers, and facing the potential of it myself, I found it fascinating. My grandmother went slowly into Alzheimers, and it took years to realize how much she was affected. My mother, now in her 80s, is showing signs of and has been diagnosed with dementia. My father's sister also developed Alzheimers - also in her 80s. No early onset in the family, something this book says is genetic with a 50% chance of passing it on, and a 100% chance of being affected if the gene is present (same odds as Huntington's).

The book is a novel - not based on any true story, but the book has an author's interview in the back that indicates Genova is well-versed in the subject. For one thing, she shares some traits with her heroine - she is a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. Alice is not only a PhD, but a beloved professor at Harvard who finds one day she cannot remember where she lives while on the way home from her daily run. During a lecture she has given year after year, she can no longer read her notes or remember a word that keeps her from finishing. At one point, she goes to her class and sits with the students, wondering where the teacher is.

Her POV shows her husband trying to be loving and supportive, but obviously not able to totally deal with the pressures of being the caretaker. He has a telling trait - he spins the wedding ring on his finger. While we don't hear from his POV, I imagined it showed his conflicting emotions - the woman he loves is disappearing, and he isn't dealing with it very well. Her children are also affected - 2 of the 3 take the genetic test, and one of them has the gene. How would you deal with knowing you faced this disease? and that you could pass it on to your children?

It was emotional and moving, and yet strangely not as depressing and overwhelming as I expected. As she slips further into this world where memories are disappearing, she seems to become detached. She refers to those around her by other terms - she doesn't know them anymore. I think of my aunt sitting quietly, smiling, while we all chatted and laughed around her - she didn't know the words to say, she didn't know who all of us were. It's too confusing.

It was a wonderfully well-written novel, and the end shows the decisions that are made, again from her point of view, now horribly skewed by the disease. I don't know. I don't know how I would - or will - deal with it in myself, and I don't know what the right way is to deal with it in others, in my mother, potentially in my father (not yet, though), possibly in my sisters one day.

But I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it. 5 stars

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