I dragged my feet on reading Still Alice, which my sister has been recommending for the last year or so. I knew it would be sad—and, oh, it is. But it’s also a very engrossing read. I finished it in two days, but several days later, I’m still thinking about some of the scenes.
Alice is a high-powered Harvard professor of psychology—a specialist in linguistics—who, at fifty, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Before telling anyone else her disquieting news, Alice reviews the “activities of daily living” questionnaire that is supposed to be completed by a family member. With each question, she foresees her future, and it is grim.
The worst of it came under the heading “Communications.” Speech is almost unintelligible. Does not understand what people are saying. Has given up reading. Never writes. No more language. . . .
She looked at the rows of books and periodicals on her bookcase, the stacks of final exams to be corrected on her desk, the emails in her inbox, the red, flashing voice-mail light on her phone. She thought about the books she’d always wanted to read . . . She had experiments to perform, papers to write, and lectures to give and attend. Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language.
Lisa Genova creates many such poignant scenes. A touching one near the end of the book brings a now-childish Alice back to Harvard for commencement. Her last graduate student thanks Alice for her “passion for understanding how language works . . . [her] guidance and wisdom . . .” Moments later, Alice is so befuddled that she walks out in front of a car. Shockingly, it’s been only a year and a half since she first received her diagnosis.
Still Alice asks the reader to witness the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease through the eyes of its victim. The novel is most effective, I think, because Alice isn’t simply a perfect woman with a tragic disease, but a well-rounded character who has her flaws; she’s somewhat vain, a bit of a bully toward her younger daughter, and only just beginning to sense that there might be trouble with her marriage.
I keep remembering the note that Alice writes for a future version of herself, a note explaining where to find the stash of sleeping pills, and what to do next. But when the time comes, Alice is too confused to follow the note’s directions. Ironically, that’s the kind of book Still Alice is: one you can’t easily forget.