Still Alice by Lisa Genova
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are many different qualities that can make a novel wonderful. Some books introduce new ideas, some use careful, poetic language, and some describe settings so well their readers feel as if they've been on journeys. But Still Alice has the quality I consider the most important in a work of fiction. The characters in Lisa Genova's book are real enough for me to identify with their ambitions, joys, concerns, and tragedies. I have had a number of relatives and friends who have suffered with dementia and this fact helps me connect with the subject, but Genova's writing is what brings the people to life.
The book is about an accomplished woman, a Harvard psychology professor, who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Alice is an expert in linguistics, which makes the progression of her disease even more tragic. But the story isn't all negative. There's one important relationship in her life that improves as Alice is forced to learn to accept other people's opinions and to live in the moment.
Even though the book is written from Alice's point of view, it is about her friends and family almost as much as it is about her. Alice's ability to understand non-verbal communication grows as she loses her capacity to process language. In some ways this makes her a more attentive person, at least for a short period of time until she loses additional abilities. Here's a quote from a scene where Alice is watching her daughter, Lydia, rehearse a role in a play.
“Alice watched and listened and focused beyond the words the actress spoke. She saw her eyes become desperate, searching, pleading for truth. She saw them land softly and gratefully on it. Her voice felt at first tentative and scared. Slowly, and without getting louder, it grew more confident and then joyful, playing sometimes like a song. Her eyebrows and shoulders and hands softened and opened, asking for acceptance and offering forgiveness. Her voice and body created an energy that filled Alice and moved her to tears. She squeezed the beautiful baby in her lap and kissed his sweet-smelling head.
The actress stopped and came back into herself. She looked at Alice and waited.
“Okay, what do you feel?”
“I feel love. It’s about love.”
I loved the way I could feel what Alice was feeling. That process not only helped me enjoy the book, but I believe it will make me a better caretaker.
Recommending Still Alice is tricky, because some people who are or have been caretakers will benefit from seeing the process through Alice's eyes, while others will not be able to handle the emotions the story can reawaken.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
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