“If the piece of notebook paper with her mother’s recipe on it still existed, Alice didn’t know where it was. She hadn’t needed to refer to it in years. It was a simple recipe, arguably better than Marty’s cheesecake, and she’d made it every Christmas Eve since she was a young girl. How many eggs? It had to be more than six, or she would’ve taken out only one carton. Was it seven, eight, nine?
“She tried skipping over the eggs for a moment, but the other ingredients looked just as foreign. Was she supposed to use all of the cream or measure out only some of it? How much sugar? Was she supposed to combine everything all at once or in a particular sequence? What pan did she use? At what temperature did she bake it and for how long? No possibility rang true. The information just wasn’t there.Lisa Genova’s ear for the Alzheimer’s patient’s experience in Still Alice is impeccable. Although I’m not particularly familiar with the details of such an experience, this fictional version rang true to me. So true, in fact, that it was spooky. When I put the book down halfway through and couldn’t remember who had recommended it to me, I was unusually disturbed, actually distressed, until it finally came back to me.
“What the hell is wrong with me?
“She revisited the eggs. Still nothing. She hated those fucking eggs. She held one in her hand and threw it as hard as she could into the sink. One by one, she destroyed them all.” (pp. 65-66)
Alice is a successful and driven Harvard professor in psycholinguistics when she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 50. We meet her before her personality has been impacted, and the book follows her month by month (each chapter is a new month) as the disease and her life progress. We get to know her husband and her three grown children, and we also follow her to medical appointments, which orients the reader in terms of Alice’s deterioration, as well as providing information about the disease itself.
Genova’s writing reminds me in parts of Margaret Laurence (whom I admire greatly). In the following passage, Alice, who is about to go for a run with her husband, has gone back into their summer home, but she can’t remember why. She begins to retrace her steps to try to remember, thinking (twice) it may have been for her fleece, but never coming to the real reason for her back-track. Eventually she gives up and heads back out, when:
“Just as she reached the front door, an urgent pressure in her bladder announced itself, and she remembered that she really had to pee. She hastened back down the hall and opened the door to the bathroom. Only, to her utter disbelief, it wasn’t the bathroom. A broom, mop, bucket, vacuum cleaner, stool, toolbox, lightbulbs, flashlights, bleach. The utility closet.” (p. 149)These startling moments have such perfect tempo and are so imaginable that they are simply chilling, even though nothing like them has ever happened to me.
What worked less well for me were some of the plot elements in the book, particularly aspects of the ending, which also felt like it happened too quickly. By the end of the story, Genova seemed unsympathetic or at least not attuned to Alice’s husband, John. In addition, some of the sibling dynamics between Alice’s children felt forced.
The speed of the ending and the lack of empathy for John may have been inevitable, given that Genova gave herself the near-impossible task of telling the story from Alice’s point of view, and Alice’s vision of what is going on around her becomes less and less coherent with time, as does her understanding of what is happening within her. In that way the last third of the book reminded me of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, where the telling remains sympathetic but the distance between reader and narrator increases to the point where it stops being in any way familiar.
However, Genova never loses sight of Alice—her telling is absolutely faithful. The stories she chooses to tell about what happens to Alice are stories of the human heart’s capacity to love. And yes, this book will make you cry. Several times.
I am left thinking about what Still Alice is meant to leave with its readers. Yes, it is an injunction to be more sympathetic towards Alzheimer’s patients and to consider them as full human beings in spite of their impairments—she is, still, Alice. Also, Genova is clearly bent towards a vision that medical solutions will eventually eradicate or transform this disease. But more than that, Still Alice is about the heart, about the particular displacement of self that love is, its flows and its allowances, whether it is love for one’s parent, one’s spouse, one’s children, or even, oneself.
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