Still Alice by Lisa Genova


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.

Aspiring writers in a ‘holding pattern’

Permission to land?
Permission to land?

I’ll be posting a review of Lisa Genova’s remarkable first novel Still Alice over the weekend. In the meantime, some interesting advice from the author.

‘I know so many aspiring writers who are sitting in a holding pattern, with a work completed, waiting to find a literary agent. They’re stuck, unable to give themselves permission to write the next book because they’re waiting to find out if their work is “good enough”, waiting to find out if they’re a “real writer”. This state of waiting, of not writing and self-doubt, is the worst state any writer can be in.

My advice is this: If you don’t find a literary agent falling into your lap quickly enough, if you feel like your work is done and is ready to be shared with the world, self-publish. Give your work to the world. Let it go. And keep writing. Freedom!’

Genova’s powerful novel about Alzheimer’s was a special case, which followed a unique path to publication. Before the book was published, the Harvard neuroscientist contacted the marketing department of the Alzheimer’s Association, thinking they might be interested in some way, “perhaps endorsing it or providing a link to it from their website”. She sent them the link to the book’s website, which she’d created before the book was published. The marketing rep got in touch, asking for a copy of the manuscript. Even though they didn’t normally considering “partnering” books, they loved it and wanted to give it their stamp of approval. The association asked Genova to write the blog for an awareness campaign they were launching at the end of that month.

“Realising that I’d created something that the Alzheimer’s Association thought was valuable, that could help educate and reassure the millions of people trying to navigate the world with Alzheimer’s, I felt an urgent responsibility to get the book out immediately.” She said yes to the blog and yes to the affiliation and went ahead and self-published Still Alice in 2007, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Two books later, you can find out what Lisa Genova is up to now on her website: