My mother was a geriatric nurse for most of her career. When I was in my late teens I had a summer job working at the nursing home where she was head nurse. Many of the patients had dementia and I remember one lady in particular, Annie. She was sweet and over the summer we became friends…except she never remembered who I was from one day to the next.
Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, renowned Harvard professor, mother of three, happily married to John, also a Harvard prof. After seeing her doctor because she’s suffering from strange lapses in her memory, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She is 50.
The novel traces Alice’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. At first she merely struggles to find words (and I don’t do this, but sometimes I start a story and totally forget what I was going to say!) but then her lapses in memory become more pronounced: she gets lost walking a familiar route, she forgets people who were introduced to her only moments before, she mistakes a mat on the floor for a black hole.
Still Alice isn’t literature. Okay, yes, it tells a story, but often times I felt like the author was trying to convey information. Alice says to her neurologist:
“You should also tell them about DASNI. It’s the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network International.”
There are several other instances of this sort of writing, places where I felt Genova had an agenda and she was writing to fulfill it. Somehow it lessens the emotional impact of the story because as a reader I was more interested in Alice and her life than I was in hearing about clinical trials.
I can only imagine that being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is the worst torture imaginable. The disconnect between your life and the lives of the people you love would be beyond horrific. The thought of losing the ability to read (I can’t even imagine my life without books!), to watch a movie, to do simple tasks, or to recognize the faces of my children fills me with dread. Yet near the end of the novel, Alice still has the wherewithal to stand up in front of the delegates of a Dementia Care Conference and give an impassioned lecture about how, despite her symptoms, she is still a person worthy of note.
“Please don’t look at our scarlet A’s and write us off. Look us in the eye, talk directly to us. Don’t panic or take it personally if we make mistakes, because we will.”
The whole lecture seemed like authorial commentary…and it didn’t work for me. Strangely, the part that I found most moving in the novel was when Alice attends the graduation of her last grad student, Dan. Even though we’ve seen very little of their relationship and hardly anything of Dan in the novel, his post-graduation moment with Alice is very touching.
People will love Still Alice. My feeling about it is that it’s a timely topic written without artifice.