Meet Alice, a brilliant 50-year-old academic faced with a shock diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lisa Genova uses this strong starting point to create a gripping piece of fiction, a heart-wrenching personal journey towards the ultimate loss – the loss of oneself. At times it is agonising to walk in her shoes but Alice is such an appealing and downright interesting character you would follow her anywhere.
The reader accompanies Alice to doctor’s appointments, lectures (she’s a linguistics professor at Harvard) and family celebrations. You are there when she gets hopelessly lost on her regular jogging route, starts repeating herself and stops recognising people. Hearing the story from Alice’s perspective, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved by her predicament. In the gap between what she feels and what she can express are some of the most poignant moments of the book.
The relationships Alice has with her husband John and three children are nicely flawed and complex. Successful, driven and somewhat selfish, John is poorly equipped to deal with the impact of the illness on them both. But there are just enough glimpses of his heartache and confusion to persuade us to care about him too.
We know that things are only going to get worse for Alice. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and yet the suspense is sustained throughout the story. What is going to happen next? How bad will it get? Will she do something drastic?
As well as being a character-driven novel, Still Alice documents the diagnosis, treatment and progression of Alzheimer’s. I can imagine it’s a fascinating and useful account for those directly affected by the disease, which is why the U.S. Alzheimer’ Association endorsed it. There is quite a lot of medical detail included but the stakes are so high for the main character that you want this information and it doesn’t interfere with the flow.
Another outstanding novel which has serious illness as the central theme, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That changed the way I looked at cancer. Still Alice has now done the same for Alzheimer’s. Every illness brings its own special world of pain and havoc and the more we learn about it the more forewarned and compassionate we can be. A book that almost makes you feel the illness has turned up uninvited at your door is storytelling at its best.