‘Still Alice’

What can I say? I breezed through this book in two short days.

Still Alice cover shot

I could barely put this book down.

“Still Alice” is heart-warming at the same time it is heart-breaking. It follows the story of Alice, a Harvard professor of cognitive psychology and linguistics, as she copes with her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It also reflects on Alice’s relationships with the people in her life: She and her husband have three grown children — two daughters and a son.

Barely 50 years old, Alice struggles to come to terms with not only being told what is causing her lapses in memory (including the day she went out for a run and got lost two blocks from her home) but also with knowing exactly what is coming down the line. As a cognitive psychologist and studied linguist, Alice knows all too well the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease — including the particularly rapid decline and death of those who have the early-onset form.

She also deals with the knowledge that her children have a 50 percent chance of having early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease themselves — a fact that leads two of them to get genetic testing to see if they will, in fact, develop the disease. In her “Alzheimer’s moments” it’s easy to experience, through her eyes, the confusion and frustration she feels as she struggles to follow along in books and fails to keep up her end of a phone conversation. The moment she gets lost in her home on the way to the bathroom and ends up wetting her pants was one of the most poignant, heart-wrenching scenes in the book — leaving me in tears right alongside Alice.

And Alice’s more lucid moments lead to some very thought-provoking ideas and images. “I’m losing my yesterdays,” she thinks to herself. “And I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted.”

When she discusses with her daughter the effects of Alzheimer’s and tries to prepare her for the day she doesn’t recognize her, her daughter says, “You might not know me, but you will know I love you.” Alice reminds her that, no matter what, she will love her, too. But, she secretly wonders if that’s true: “Do I love her with my head? Or, do I love her with my heart?”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the story was seeing, through Alice’s point of view, the ways her various family members responded to her disease. Her children ranged from wanting to “force” her to use her own memory, without the help of her trusted BlackBerry to keep track of dates and reminders, to wanting to provide everything for her that she couldn’t regularly be trusted to provide for herself. And my heart ached as I saw Alice’s husband, John, pull away from her. Because it hurt him so to watch her suffer — and to admit to himself that his beloved wife had the disease — he stayed away when she took her medicine and lost his sense of humor when, at certain times, the only thing you can do is laugh. How else do you respond when you get your underwear stuck on your head because you think it’s your bra?

A final note, while the book is written from Alice’s perspective, it’s written in third person. At first, I found this odd. How much more could we have experienced through Alice’s eyes if we’d heard it from her voice? But then I realized that perhaps the author was trying to showcase Alice’s feeling of separation of self. Perhaps we were getting to see the way Alice was unable to recognize (or, even, reconcile) the “self” she was after Alzheimer’s Disease crept in with the “self” she was before. Third person allowed us to look at Alice’s life from the outside, just as she was experiencing it as her memories faded and Alzheimer’s took control of her brain.

I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean today doesn’t matter. ~Alice Howland

Don’t forget: I’ll be keeping a running log of the books I’ve read and the ones up next on my list, as well as a rating of each book. Check out my list here. And if you have any suggested reading for me, I’d love to hear ‘em — just leave me a comment here or on my 52 Books in 2011 page.

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