Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

How I came across it:

I borrowed a number of books from a friend and this one was in the pile she gave me alongside the entire Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, and Tom Sawyer.

What the book is about:

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor and researcher. Her story begins with her busy life and progresses through stages of forgetfulness until one incident leaves Alice with no choice but to pursue medical assistance in figuring out her forgetfulness problem.

Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and she struggles through the diagnosis alone for some time. Once she finally shares with her family, everybody finds their own way of dealing with it, but ultimately the family rallies and finds a new normal.

What I liked:

  • Each character has been fully developed so that with each appearance of the characters, they feel complete and act in character. I don’t need to be told the entire family dynamic and history to feel the depth of complication in their relationships. They are rich and full and sometimes even aggravating. I found myself being frustrated with the character’s choices and reactions because they were very real.
  • The ultimate portrait of Alice and her ability (and sometimes inability) to deal with the gravity of her diagnosis. She struggles alone for a long time before finally opening up to her family, much to my (and Alice’s doctor’s) aggravation. Alice is a full person who has been developed beautifully.
  • Consistent tone and voice throughout made the book an engaging read. I found myself drawn into the world of the Howlands and sometimes forgot that I was only a visitor to an imaginary land.
  • The realism of the beginning of the story was a big plus for me as well. Watching everyone struggle through the reality of what was happening was like a walk back through my own memories of my grandpa’s Alzheimer’s journey. The feelings and frustrations were familiar to me. My personal experience with Alzheimer’s helped the story come alive even more and I found myself moved to tears more than once.
  • The diminishing forward motion of Alice’s story as her memory goes was beautifully pulled off. The first part of the story is rich and full, while the latter half is more sporadic, more full of frustration, and lacks the linear continuity one would expect from a story. However, given that this is a story about mental degeneration, it works beautifully and gives the ending a powerful poignancy that couldn’t be achieved with another writing method.
  • The technical language involved throughout really appealed to me. I am an academic by nature, though not by occupation, and I found the conversations about high level psychological concepts and medical terminology to be a a necessary and beautiful layer of the book. Alice and John are both highly educated in fields that relate to Alzheimer’s, so the inclusion of such highly-educated type of content fit perfectly into the book. It would not have worked had Alice and John been “average” people.

 

What I didn’t like: 

  • There was one spot where the POV shifted from Alice and into her husband, John. It was one incident, but it stuck out to me. The entire book is written from Alice’s point of view, so I was disappointed to run into a spot that was clearly from his point of view.
  • As close as Alice is with her daughter Anne and son Tom, there wasn’t much time spent on them in the book. The strained relationship with her other daughter, Lydia, took up most of the child-relationship development in the book. While that conflict pushed the plot forward, the absence of a deeper understanding of Alice and Anne’s relationship made it so that I found it odd that Alice eventually moves in with Anne.
  • The ending seemed a touch too tidy for me, with everyone pitching in like a harmonious family by the end. Everyone manages to deal perfectly well with the Alzheimer’s, which didn’t feel quite real to me. John’s employment decision at the end of the book also seems too easily accepted by everyone and that didn’t feel real to me either. To be fair, the book is from Alice’s diminishing grasp of reality, so the snippets at the end perhaps show everyone in their best light.

 

What to incorporate in your own writing:

  • Rich characters. Notice how developed each character feels and how connected you become to them.
  • A moving plot. Ask yourself “what is the PLOT of my story?” The plot is the action that moves the story forward. If you can’t articulate your plot, then spend some time working out the forward motion of your story.
  • Balance internal life with the external life. Even though the story is about the deterioration of Alice’s mind, there is still a lot of outward action that drives the story forward.

 

Overall thoughts and opinions: 

I deeply enjoyed this book, and not only because of my own personal experience with this disease. The book was well-written and the story was compelling. I had a hard time setting it down and read every moment I could to know what happened. I was not surprised that Alice would try to leave herself some future instructions but I was pleasantly surprised by the twist in the revelation of the outcome of those instructions. I was in tears by the end of the story and it stuck in my head for several days after, allowing me to reflect on the impact of Alzheimer’s in my own life.

I would highly recommend others to read this book, especially those who have experienced the effects of this disease.

I give 5 out of 5 stars.

5 star rating

Find more about Still Alice and Lisa Genova.

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