Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
Still Alice by Lisa Genova published by Simon and Schuster, January 2009, $15.00 paperback
Still Alice is a novel about Alice Howland, a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard, who finds out at age fifty that she has Alzheimer’s disease. Alice is not only a celebrated professor at the height of her career, but is also a world-renowned expert in linguistics. She is happily married with three adult children. Her story begins with some minor but nagging forgetfulness, including forgetting names, words in conversation and where she put her Blackberry. She then has an incident in which she goes on her daily run and becomes confused as to where she is. Alice decides to consult a neurologist, who gives her the devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The book tells of Alice’s struggle to maintain her independence and lifestyle as she deals with her increasing forgetfulness and confusion. She initially is unable to share the diagnosis with her husband, who is a biologist and somewhat absorbed in his research. When she is finally able to break the news to him, he has a hard time believing her and asks the neurologist to do genetic testing to confirm his diagnosis. The testing confirms the bad news and, in addition, the neurologist tells them that her early-onset Alzheimer’s disease has a strong genetic linkage, which adds to their concerns.
Alice keeps the diagnosis from her colleagues at Harvard and tries to continue both her classroom and lecture schedule. During the semester of her diagnosis she forgets the subject of one of her lectures and doesn’t realize she is the professor in another. Eventually she makes the difficult decision to resign from teaching.
As Alice’s dementia progresses, the family dynamics change. Her husband struggles with the opportunity to accept a once-in-a lifetime position in a new city, knowing the change will adversely affect Alice. Their children struggle with losing their mother as they know her and with deciding whether or not to be tested for the genetic mutation prevalent in early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Still Alice is written with a great deal of compassion and realism. Genova tackles a difficult subject, but does so in a very gentle and caring way. The book certainly gives the reader a sense of what it must be like to live with Alzheimer’s disease. Mark Warner of Alzheimer’s Daily News describes the book as “the best portrayal of the Alzheimer’s journey that I have read.”
Author Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, self-published Still Alice in 2007. Publisher Simon & Schuster purchased the rights to the book, which will be available January 6 from Pocket Books. Genova’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease and as she visited with her, Genova became fascinated with the progression of the disease. She wondered “What is having Alzheimer’s disease like from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s?” This question was the seed of Still Alice. Genova did a considerable amount of research and collection of stories from people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, who could still describe what it’s like to have dementia. She is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer’s Association. These credentials make Still Alice seem like a true story and a very worthwhile read.