Book & Writing Review – Still Alice by Lisa Genova 2007

Having recently read Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel ‘Still Alice’, I think it’s definitely worth a look if, like me, you are one of the ‘few’ who haven’t got around to  it yet.  It was interesting to note that it was self-published, as a first novel, before being picked up in 2009 by Simon & Schuster. It then went on to be on The New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks, was published in over 30 countries and won numerous awards. It was also made into a film.

For all of us aspiring writers I think it reminds us of holding on to belief in what we do, as well as reminding us that there are many routes to publication.  For Genova she believed enough in her work to self-publish which ultimately led her to much critical acclaim; as well as the all-important publishing deal. There may be may be a little bit of luck in this, there are other good self-published novels out there, but it’s also down to an enormous amount of hard work. She did initially try all the ‘normal routes’ to agent finding and publication, but clearly did not let rejection hold her back.

The book tells the story of Alice Howland and her descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alice is 50 and has a stellar career at Harvard as a cognitive psychology professor and as a world renowned linguistics expert. Her husband is also successful in his academic field; together they have grown-up children. Before I had even started the book I felt slightly ‘anxious’ about Alice’s career given the impact the disease might have on her, especially with that career being about words and cognition; something hugely important to writers. After having read it there were several moments where I felt pure fear that I could not find something lost. I also found myself in parts anxious about my own future and I wondered just what such a diagnosis would mean to me.

I was personally gripped from start to finish. I read many enjoyable books but it felt like a long time since reading one that evoked such strong emotions.  I was tense at times, tearful at others, and I so wanted to retain my initial hope that the progression of the disease would be halted, or even reversed. I connected to the characters and wanted to shake Alice’s husband when his way of dealing with things was denial, even knowing this must be a perfectly natural reaction. I wanted all of Alice’s family to gather round and be there for her, and while they were, the relationships were often as they were before the diagnosis, messy, normal, just a bit more denial creeping in.

Genova’s writing was powerful, but not sentimental, and in telling the story through Alice it really felt like living that experience. The fear, the anxiety, the bewilderment, and the initial denial for both Alice, her husband, and her doctors, were all portrayed with great skill. Genova herself has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and it felt to me like she fully understood the known workings of the mind. However, she also did a pretty good job of describing the impact of Alzheimer’s on Alice and her family, alongside outlining some of the medical details. All written in a way that was easy to understand.

I have seen some mixed reviews on the book, and I cannot say I have any first hand experience of early-onset Alzheimer’s, it must be pretty tough for everyone involved. But I do think this was a good book to read, and a useful one. Not least in showing Lisa Genova had the courage of her convictions when self-publishing, but also in raising awareness of this disease.

Sue Boag

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