Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Alice watched and listened to the relentless, breaking waves pounding the shore. If it weren’t for the colossal seawall constructed at the edges of the properties of the million-dollar homes along Shore Drive, the ocean would have taken each house in, devouring them all without sympathy or apology. She imagined her Alzheimer’s like this ocean at Lighthouse Beach—unstoppable, ferocious, destructive. Only there were no seawalls in her brain to protect her memories and thoughts from the onslaught. [pg 156]

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Pocket Books, 2009 (ARE)
Fiction, 303 pgs

My grandmother was an amazing woman. She was a teacher, a wife and a mother. She was active in both her church and the League of Women Voters organization. She and my grandfather very much a part of my childhood. After my Grandpa John died, the family began noticing little changes in my grandmother. She was forgetful. She would go out wearing her clothing backwards. She left a turkey in the trunk of her car one hot summer night, completely forgotten. She could not do simple tasks and would lose her way home while out running errands. She bought a minivan she could not afford nor needed. She was irritable and defensive. Eventually she withdrew, barely speaking. She stopped making an effort to walk, preferring instead to sit in a wheelchair. She couldn’t remember who people were and we did not know if she really understood what was going on around her. My grandmother did not have Alzheimer’s, however. She suffered from vascular dementia, with many of the same symptoms as someone with Alzheimer’s might have. In my desire to learn more about her illness, I did quite a bit of research into dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease.

My father’s father, Grandpa Willie, did have Alzheimer’s Disease. His was not early onset as Alice’s was in the novel. His came with old age. Being on the West Coast and he on the East, I did not see the impact his illness had on him first hand like I had with my grandmother in California. I heard the stories though. The last time I saw my grandfather in the nursing home, he had no idea who I was.

Earlier this year, my husband’s uncle was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Uncle R is a war veteran, highly intelligent and was successful in his career. It has been difficult for his family, including his wife, children, mother and sister.

Alzheimer’s is hereditary. And that’s a scary thought. As terrible as this may sound, I confess to being more frightened of having that than cancer (although I worry about that too; breast cancer being a real risk factor in my life—both my grandmothers and mother having had it). The idea of losing my mind, piece by piece . . . My memories, including the most basic disappearing. And knowing it is happening. I cannot imagine how frustrating and frightening that would be not only for me but those around me.

Still Alice was not a book I sought out to read before now. It was one sent to me by the publisher for review. Even amidst all the glowing reviews, I hesitated in reading it. I commented on many blogger reviews that I wasn’t ready, that it hit too close to home. When Florinda brought up the idea of a group read-along, I penciled it in deciding I might as well give it a try.

I picked up Still Alice at lunch on Friday and barely spent any time on my computer that night as I jumped right back into reading. I only went to bed at 12:44 a.m. because I could not keep my eyes open any longer. I finished the book Saturday morning. I didn’t rush through the book on purpose with a deadline in mind. I was so involved in Alice’s story, in her family’s story, that I just wanted to keep reading.

In Lisa Genova’s novel, Dr. Alice Howland is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard University. She has a successful career and is well-respected among her peers. She prides herself on her accomplishments and being the best teacher she can be. She is the mother of three adult children and married to a man she loves very much and who is also successful in his own career.

She loves her children. Her older two are leading successful lives. Alice worries about her youngest though who has chosen a career path that Alice has trouble understanding. She also worries that she and her husband have grown apart. They live under the same roof, but lead very independent lives. She misses their walks to work in the morning, holding hands and stopping at Jerri’s for coffee and tea.

She is extremely busy, always on the go. It is no wonder she occasionally forgets where she puts things and sometimes loses a word. Everyone does that now and then, especially when stressed or overwhelmed. In Alice’s case, there’s also the possibility of menopause setting in. Hadn’t she read that minor memory disruptions and mental confusion could be related to that?

It isn’t until she forgets how to get home one day during a run that she realizes just how serious her problem may be. Not wanting to worry her husband, she sees her doctor and later a neurologist. She never expected the diagnosis she was given: early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Lisa Genova’s prose is simple and easy to read even if the story she tells is one filled with sadness and pain. It is not all depressing though. While Alice’s prognosis is poor, her family is just as much a part of this book as Alice, and their lives will go on.

I wasn’t too keen on Alice at first. I immediately identified with her youngest daughter, Lydia. Alice is very opinionated and has difficulty understanding Lydia’s choice not to attend college to pursue an acting career. Alice and Lydia have a strained relationship in the beginning of the book, but as the story progresses, their relationship begins to change. My impressions of Lydia only grow more positive and I came to really care about Alice.

I could understand Alice’s husband’s initial denial and constant search for solutions that might help his wife. It couldn’t have been easy for him. The woman he loved was disappearing before his eyes. Juggling his career and a spouse who was becoming increasingly dependent would not be easy on anyone. I feel terrible for writing this, but he frustrated me at times with the choices he made, one in particular. Was he wrong? Not necessarily. He did what he thought was best for him in his situation. It is hard to know what we would do in any given circumstance without being in that situation ourselves. Still, his choices bothered me.

Alzheimer’s Disease is degenerative and there is yet no cure. There are drugs that help minimally by delaying the progression of the illness but it is still unknown how to stop it. There is DNA testing available which can detect whether a person is likely to develop Alzheimer’s, however, it is not full proof by any stretch. And then the question becomes whether you’d want to know something like that ahead of time. Lisa Genova broached this subject in the novel as well.

The author also addressed the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s. The fear and assumptions people make upon learning someone has the disease. When Alice’s colleagues learned of her diagnosis, they began to avoid her. Her family often would talk about her while she sat right there in the room instead of addressing her directly. Alice could not help but feel alienated and alone, not to mention helpless.

I felt a full range of emotions while reading this novel: fear, anger, sadness, joy, hope, helplessness, and love. The bonds of the Howland family are tested to the limit. Alice is an amazing and strong woman. I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, grandfather, and Uncle R. as I read. My heart aches for what they must have gone through—and are going through in the case of my husband’s uncle. I hope that a cure for or at least a way to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s will be found in the near future. I cried as I read Still Alice and for a long time after I finished it. It is not an easy read due to the subject matter, but it is well worth reading.

Rating: * (Very Good +)

For more information about the author, Lisa Genova, and her book visit her website.

© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. I can't imagine myself losing my memory, that'd be so horrible!

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Wendy! This book sounds great and I'll be sure to check it out. :)

  2. I read this book last year, I think. I had a copy sent by the author. It really affected me too. Like you, I'm afraid of this disease also, though there's no history of it in my family. It must be terrible.

  3. What a marvelous post!

    My husband's family has been recorded in the medical books for their unusual strain of Alzheimer's. His mom was the only child out of 5 (she was also the only girl) who did not contract the disease. The unusual aspect for them is that ALL of them were diagnosed in their 40s and died in their 50s. VERY YOUNG!

    While this is a book that I should probably read - I must say that I will have to be emotionally ready to deal with the difficult themes before I pick it up.

  4. Well, you ended my internal debate about this book. I have been wanting to read it, but also avoiding it. Your review has me wanting to go ahead and jump in.

  5. Thank you for sharing your very personal story. You've reaffirmed my decision that I really need to get my hands on this book. Hopefully soon.

  6. This sounds like a powerful story, and it's one I would like to read.

  7. Hi Wendy! Your review makes me want to dish out my copy right now to read it. I've had this book in my TBR for some time and kept getting overlooked by other books. I'm going to push this to the top of the list. Thanks!

  8. This book has been on my radar for some time, but like you I've been afraid to read it.

    Also like you, this disease scares me more than any other disease out there. I think I'd prefer a horribly painful death to a slow loss of what it is that makes me who I am, and the loss of my family as well (at least in my mind).

    Excellent review, thank you for sharing your stories.

  9. My grandmother had Alzheimers, and eventually died of complications resulting from the disease. It is a horrible, horrible thing to watch, isn't it? You literally lose the person you love. What is left of them is not grandma, or maybe it is a version of grandma when she was 3. It was also devastating at the lack of dignity she had as the disease progressed. I have not read this, nor The Wildnerness, which I believe is on the same subject. I know I should, it just has been too recent. Someday!

  10. Excellent review. I was avoiding this book too, but now I've bought it. I know it's good but I have to be in the right frame of mind to read it, I find the topic very sad.

  11. I have been wanting to read this ever since someone mentioned it when I read Wilderness (one of my favourite books of the year) I am pleased to hear that you found this to be such a powerful book - I'll try to get hold of a copy soon.

    I recommend you read Wilderness, but I am sure you will find it just as emotional - keep the tissues handy!

  12. I feel fortunate that Alzheimer's hasn't touched our family so far. I really want to read this book, but think I'll have to be in the right mood to do it. Great review!

  13. I really loved reading this book. It so read like a memoir for me. Great review Wendy. Glad you liked it too.

  14. Thank you for reading this with me (and finishing before I have), and I really appreciate your sharing your own connections with Alzheimer's and related disorders. I am seeing so much of our family's experience with my mother in Alice's story.

    Alice is 50 when Alzheimer's begins to manifest. My mother's symptoms began surfacing in her early 50's as well. I'm 45, and this is truly scaring me.

    Excellent review, Wendy. I'm glad you dug this one out of the TBR stack.

  15. Glad you had the strength to move forward with reading this one. Your insights are wonderful. I have this book on my TBR also and am waiting for the moment when I can "endure" it. I have lost several loved ones to this disease and volunteered with hospice to take care of them. This hits very close to home for me as it did for you. It sounds like the book handles everything really well and is a good one for everyone to read and learn more about this disease. I think my biggest fear would be to lose my mind and myself like this. Thanks again for tackling it and sharing your insights with all of us.

  16. That's a very powerful review, Wendy. I've picked this one up at the bookstore a few times, but I always put it back. I'm not sure if I'm prepared to bawl my eyes out.

  17. Wendy, what a wonderful post this is. Coincidentally, I read STILL ALICE this last week and was captivated by it. As I've shared when I was still posting to my blog, my father had Alzheimer's and he died last November in an advanced state of that illness. My mother has vascular dementia and is now on hospice care. When we realized that it was time for hospice evaluation for my mother this last June, I kept thinking, how the heck could I have to deal with this again. Again. So soon. But, time has passed. I've had a lovely summer with my mother, visiting her at her care center almost every day. It has been so special. My Mom's dementia is softer than my Dad's. It is pleasant dementia. His was very unpleasant. I'm more versed in how to do things now. How to cope, what to expect.

    So, with that in mind, I had put off reading STILL ALICE because I wasn't ready. This is a very important book. Seriously. I would recommend it without hesitation for any family that is dealing with a diagnosis of dementia, for anyone that would like to know what Alzheimer's and dementia "looks like". I nodded my head, I cried, I sighed, I wanted to crawl into the book and hug everyone in it. :-) I learned some things and gained some insights into why my father did some of the odd things that he did. Even now, having experienced dementia with both parents and having it take over my life for the last 4 years, I learned something.

    Well, thanks for sharing your experiences. Thanks for letting me share mine. All of this is part of why my blog has been on permanent hiatus, at least for now. Maybe one day I can come back to it. I miss it.

    Hugs to you! Hang in there. Live in the moment! :-)

  18. Wow... what a review Wendy! Alzheimers runs on my mom's side of the family and it's very difficult to watch and see how someone can just disappear in front of your eyes. I honestly don't know if I could read this... sounds like it may be too much of a heartbreaker. Great review Wendy!

  19. I can understand your reluctance to read Still Alice, or more you being unsure of it. I read Iris a few years ago about Iris Murdoch and it was a tough but great read and that was before my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimers. I think I would fear Alzheimers more than cancer because it attacks the brain.
    Your review of the book is fanrtastic. I want to run out and buy it now. I can only begin to imagine the myriad of emaotions you went through reading this book.
    Thank you for sharing it all
    ~ Amy

  20. I'm so glad that you were brave and dove into this book. I wasn't prepared for all the emotions that this book elicited in me but I'm so thankful that I read it!! Beautiful review!

  21. One of my book clubs chose this as a selection to read this year. The thing that won my vote was when one woman suggested that the small "i" in STiLL ALiCE suggests how diminished she is. A very thought provoking idea, in my mind.

  22. This is a wonderful review, Wendy...this is a book I have looked at many times, but hesitated to buy because my father has dementia (not Alzheimers...but small vessel disease) and I am struggling with his gradual, but steady decline. I find I am grieving the loss of my dad, even though he is still with us because WHO he was is now gone and replaced by someone I don't really know anymore. So I am afraid to read a book that might feel devastating for me right now. Your review, however, made me think I might be able to handle this book.

  23. I have been meaning to read this book. Great review... Now to find time to read it!

  24. My grandfather had Alzheimers and was tortured by it (on his lucid days.) He hated knowing that he didn't know anythiing, if that makes sense. I don't think I'm up for reading the book because I don't know that I could keep my personal experiences out of it. Maybe in a few years, if I'm not so stressed by life itself!

  25. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your personal history with this disease. This book sounds like it would be a diificult read with all that history you brought to the reading. Outstanding review!

  26. What an awesome review Wendy and Alzheimer’s seems even more scary when so many from your family are affected by it. I'm not sure I could read this book, I find myself not picking up books based on diseases any more. But glad you got over your fear adn completed it.

  27. I read this long ago, and I still feels its impact. Alice felt so real to me that even months after reading the book, I still wanted to know how she was doing.

  28. I enjoyed this book too, and I thought it bought an unusual voice across, telling what it is like for the person who has dementia.

    In a youth obsessed society, it is time for us to discuss about end of life situations. Also talking to our family and those closest to us, about what our wishes are should our cicumstances change is always a good idea.

    I loved your review.


  29. I would hate to lose my memory...I'm sure this book was a tough read for you.

  30. I struggle with seeing my father suffering from AD and, like you, fear for my own future. I'm not sure I could deal with this book right now, but I'm glad that you feel that it has something worthwhile to offer...especially since more and more people are having to address this illness with their loved ones.

  31. Melody - I think it would be horrible too, not to mention terrifying. I hope you do like it if you decide to read it.

    Lynne - Hopefully you're family will never have to experience Alzheimer's. Still Alice was such a heartwrenching book. I'm glad I read it.

    Molly - Thank you! I am sorry to hear that your husband's family suffered so much from this illness. Hopefully his mother will continue to be free of it.

    It definitely is one that had me in tears through most of it!

    Christine - It's definitely not an easy one to pick up, at least it wasn't for me.

    Debi - It really touched me on a personal level (another one I just finished reviewing did too--it must be that kind of reading year for me). I hope you do get a chance to read Still Alice.

    Charley - I do hope you get the chance to read it, Charley!

    Alice - It's an easy book to push aside because of the depressing subject matter.

    Heather - Thank you! I think that the part that scares me the most is knowing I'm losing my memories and mind. That sounds like torture. My heart aches for those who are going through that--and for their families.

    Sandy - I am sorry about your grandmother, Sandy. It was so hard watching my own grandmother progress in her dementia. She wasn't the same person she had been by the end. It was heartbreaking.

    I'm trying to decide if I should recommend this one to my mom and mother-in-law. I think they'd both get something out of it, but it might still be too soon.

    Myckyee - Thank you! I definitely think this is one of those books that requires the right frame of mind. It is such a sad book, but well worth reading.

    Jackie - I definitely will have to check out The Wilderness. Still Alice wasn't told in first person, but I think The Wilderness is from what I read about it. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Kathy - Thank you. I hope that Alzheimer's never touches your family. It's such a frightening illness.

    Diane - It did read like a memoir, didn't it? It felt so real! Lisa Genova definitely did her homework with this one.

    Kathleen - I am glad I decided to bite the bullet and read it now. It probably would have been on my shelf for a long time had Florinda not encouraged me to read it when she did.

    I definitely do think the author handled the various viewpoints and experiences well. While most of the focus is on Alice and what she's going through, Lisa Genova also captured the struggles the family members go through as well.

    Jill - Yes, definitely be prepared to cry if you do decide to read it.

  32. Florinda - Thank you for encouraging me to pick this one up and read it finally. It is such a frightening illness.

    Kay - Thank you. I am so sorry for all you have had to go through. It must be so difficult watching your parents suffer so. I am glad you have been able to spend quality time with your mother.

    I really want to recommend Still Alice to my mother and mother-in-law, but am not sure they are ready. Perhaps I should give them each copies of the book and let them decide when it's time. Yes, maybe I'll do that.

    I truly appreciate your comment, Kay. And I agree, this is such a worthwhile book. Everyone should read it.

    Take care of yourself. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    Kristie - It is a heartbreaker, but I also think it was inspirational. It's not an easy book to read, that's for sure. I am sorry your family has had to deal with Alzheimer's Disease. I really hope a cure is found soon.

    Amy (7 Tails) - I am not familiar with Iris, but will definitely look into that one. Thanks for the recommendation, Amy. I can't imagine losing my mind the way someone with Alzheimer's does. And knowing it's happening. It terrifies me.

    Thank you for your kind words. I hope you will like Still Alice if you do decide to read it.

    Staci - I'm so glad I did too. It was definitely worth it. I am glad it was the same for you. And thank you!

    Dolce - I hadn't noticed that about the title. That's a good point and probably true. My own copy doesn't sport the same lettering exactly, so it must have been a decision they made before finalizing the covers.

    Wendy - Thank you. It's so hard to watch our loved ones suffer with dementia, isn't it? I'm sorry your father is suffering through it. My prayers and thoughts are with both of you.

    Kelly - Finding the time is always a challenge, isn't it? At least for you and me. :-) I do hope you get a chance to read this one.

    Lisa - I'm so sorry your grandfather had to go through this, Lisa. Still Alice is one of those books that requires the right state of mind, I think. Take your time. If you get to it, you get to it. Read it when you're ready.

    Stacy - Thank you. Reading the book definitely did bring up the past for me, but I have no regrets. I think I was ready for it.

    Violet - Thank you. Yes, I do think seeing the illness first hand definitely puts it into perspective and makes it all the more real.

    Joy - This one will definitely stay with me for awhile. I find myself how she and her family would be doing today too.

    Julie - Thank you! I really appreciated the author's approach to the characters and topic too. She did an excellent job.

    I agree, we do need to give more attention and thought to the end of life process and illnesses like this. My family has never been shy of talking about such things and for that I'm thankful.

    Serena - It was a difficult read, but I am glad I read it. The prospect of losing my memory terrifies me.

    Jenclair - I'm sorry your father is suffering with Alzheimer's, Jenclair. I know it can't be easy for you.

  33. Beautiful, beautiful review. As you know, I read this in March and it still haunts me. I gave it a perfect 5/5 rating, which is very rare for me. Like another commenter, I find myself thinking about "Alice" wondering how she's doing. This book reads so much like a memoir/nonfiction. It was so powerful!

    You said: he frustrated me at times with the choices he made, one in particular.

    I agree. Alice's husband came across so uncaring, but I think it was just his way of dealing with his the loss of his wife. Yes, she was still alive, but she was virtually gone in his eyes. I can't begin to imagine the life of a spouse. Or that of a victim. It's a terrible disease and as you said, I'd rather have cancer and at least have a chance to fight to the end.

  34. Les - Thank you. It really is a powerful book. I plan to give both my mother and mother-in-law copies.

    I really tried not to be frustrated with Alice's husband because I knew it was so hard for him. We all react differently to situations like this and I know it couldn't have been easy for him. It's not easy any way you look at it.

  35. Wendy, what a tremendous review. I was so moved by your personal story and connection to AD. This book was so powerful and I'm really happy you decided to be brave and read it.

    PS I agree with you re: the husband.

  36. LisaMM - Thank you. I am glad you convinced Florinda to read this one so that she, in turn, could talk me into it. As you said, this was such a powerful novel. Definitely worth reading.

  37. I hope I get to find myself a copy, reading this will definitely have you a better perspective for people with Alzheimer. Thanks.


Thank you for taking the time to visit Musings of a Bookish Kitty. Don't be shy! I would love to hear from you. Due to a recent increase in spam, I will be moderating all comments for the foreseeable future. Please be patient with me as it may take a few hours before I am able to approve your comment.