A friend of mine read this book before me and told me she had never got so attached to a character before as Alice, the main character in this novel. This friend hardly ever reads fiction; she has a highly academic mind which enjoys non-fiction. I was intrigued to find out why she was so moved by Still Alice and, having read it, am left somewhat puzzled.
It is a book about Alzheimer’s Disease and is written from the point of the view of the patient, Alice Howland, a Harvard professor of psychology. Alice is only fifty years old when she is diagnosed as having early-onset Alzheimer’s. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she is starting to forget words and where she has put things. She gets lost one day when she goes for a run. She is concerned, but initially puts the confusion down to menopause and too much stress. I could relate totally to this frustration with her brain – mine does it all the time, and I do things like finding myself standing staring at the fridge and wondering why I’m in the kitchen.
However, Alice’s confusion and forgetfulness get worse, and she takes herself to see a neurologist who confirms that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. From here on, Genova tells the story of Alice losing her ability to rely on her own thoughts and memories, her changing relationships with her husband and children, and particularly, how she has to re-define herself. She had placed all her worth on being a professor at Harvard, a renowned expert in linguistics. She suddenly has no more lectures to give, students to teach or research to conduct. She watches herself descend into the terrifying disease and how it changes her standing in relation to all those around her.
It is a fascinating story as a portrayal of early-onset Alzheimer’s and I was enthralled enough to keep reading till the end. I luckily don’t have direct experience with the disease but Genova said she was inspired to write the book because her grandmother had Alzheimer’s. Genova, in fact, holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard and is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer’s Association, so she knows what she’s writing about. It was an interesting take of hers to write from the point of view of the person with the disease, as most other books I have read about the disease are from the point of view of the caretaker or the family. In this way, she has created a personal portrayal of dementia, which is why Still Alice is an interesting read.
My gripe with the book, however, is that it isn’t well-written. It’s not badly written, but it is Genova’s first novel and reads like it is. She initially self-published it and this shows – it hasn’t had a good edit, and, as such, has clumsy dialogue and a self-consciousness to it that made me want to wince now and then. I did not relate to Alice, as I did not find her a well-developed enough character to get to know her. I couldn’t understand her husband’s reaction to her disease, either, and I found Genova’s depiction of Alice’s children to be one-dimensional.
That said, I recommend this book be read purely for getting an insight into Alzheimer’s and just how frightening and cruel a disease it is. Read it for its content and the story and not for the beauty of its writing.
- An Alzheimer’s Researcher Ends Up On the Drug She Helped Invent (theatlantic.com)