Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Self-published in 2007
My copy: Library
Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a renowned expert in linguistics, with a successful husband and three grown children. When she begins to grow forgetful and disoriented, she dismisses it for as long as she can until a tragic diagnosis changes her life – and her relationship with her family and the world around her – for ever.
I saw the film of Still Alice when it first came out, and found it very moving, especially as my nan was suffering from dementia at the time (she sadly died just a few months back). We follow Alice and her family as they come to terms with her diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s, and find out how they cope with it in different ways. At first the family comes across as quite unsympathetic and I took an instant dislike to Alice’s eldest daughter Anna and her husband John, who both came across as very selfish – and even Alice herself who was pretty full of herself at the start of the novel.
Having now seen the film and read the book, I think the film made the characters appear a bit more rounded to me than they were depicted in the novel. On paper, a lot of the characters seemed a bit under-developed; Alice’s son Tom barely features at all, for example, and only younger daughter Lydia seemed to take on her own personality.
Also I found that the book got bogged down in lots of medical and scientific jargon. While this proved the book had been very well researched, it became quite dull at times and I found myself skipping over some of the passages about neurons and inhibitors and so on.
However what does work very well in this novel is the depiction of dementia and how it pretty much ruins Alice’s life as she loses her career, her independence and, in some ways, her family. John’s reaction to her illness is the most striking as he goes into complete denial, and although this is his way of dealing with it, he does come across as very cold in the book. Alice’s growing confusion is tragic, and I did find myself sympathising with her a lot more, and feeling her frustrations, as the novel progressed.
This is a sad and touching book but, very unusually, I think I actually preferred the film, which made the characters seem a bit more human and didn’t have the same level of scientific detail thrown in. In many ways I feel the film picked out the best bits of the book, which is probably why I think I preferred it overall. However it is a well-researched and very thought-provoking novel – but don’t expect to feel too cheerful at the end!