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Book Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova (4/5)

24 Oct

Somewhere in my brain, I’d heard of this movie. I knew it had Julianne Moore but that’s about all I knew. My book club picked it and I knew Alzheimer’s was involved so this wasn’t going to be a happy ending. I’m writing a book myself that has a major character with Alzheimer’s so I was interested to see how Genova handled this.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Summary from Goodreads:

Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life–and her relationship with her family and the world–forever.

Just reading the description, I knew this book wasn’t going to end well. There’s no fixing Alzheimer’s. I thought it was interesting to choose Alice as a narrator. It helped the reader feel the same confusion when Alice would forget someone’s name or that she had said something or what she was looking for. It also helped me sympathize with Alice and what she was going through rather than looking at someone who’s confused and acting irrational and wondering why they’re doing what they are. She’s not sitting there laughing to herself for no reason, she’s giggling at the geese and the silly things they’re doing. It was very pointed when John narrated and I’m glad it was thrown in because I’m not sure the reader could have processed what his voice gave us through Alice’s eyes.

From what I’ve read, Alice’s path through Alzheimer’s is not atypical but it’s hard to say what’s ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ in such a disease. I thought the ways her family reacted were representative of caregiver testimonial’s I’ve read. John wanted to ignore her and her daughters cared for her. Lydia didn’t want to get tested but Anna wanted to overcome something she might pass on. I thought it was really beautiful and showed a wide range of reactions.

Lydia was my favorite (only dampened when I found out who plays her in the movie). I liked that she was independent and followed what she wanted. She pretended she didn’t care what Alice thought but she really loved her mother and left her boyfriend in California to move back toward home and help her family. That got overlooked by Alice who forgot about him, but as a reader, I was able to remember it. I thought that showed Lydia’s strength well.

I related well to John. It’s hard to know what to do when someone is sick. When my parents have been ill (granted, not terminally), I had a hard time coping with ‘the new normal.’ What is life like now? Do I change everything or do I continue on like I would? I’m very practical in this sense, even in my work. I try not to be emotional about a single person but I double-guess myself about not feeling enough. I think John felt this way. He wanted to get away from things a little (like going to the lab) but attacked the problem very rationally.

Lisa Genova Image via USA Today

Lisa Genova
Image via USA Today

I thought Genova handled the later part of the book very well. It was painful to read some scenes through Alice’s eyes and know that she was suffering when she was unaware or to see her grow confused as her memories faded in and out. It was very well executed and it helped me go through the pain right along with Alice.

I felt the book was a bit jumpy, even before the majority of Alice’s memory failure. It would jump forward in time to when something important happened and gloss over the fact that she was able to go for long stretches with little or no issue. It was off-putting because I couldn’t tell how Alice was progressing for parts of the book.


Genova has an odd corner on the market writing about neurological disorders. I think it’s really great she’s using fiction to bring awareness to segments of the population largely underrepresented in fiction and ignored by society. It’s hard to understand someone who has Autism or Huntington’s disease or ALS. But it’s easier when it’s a fictional person and you’re reading through his or her eyes. I think reading helps open our minds to what others are going through and Genova has done this in a wonderful way with Alice. I’m excited to see the movie because Genova has praised Moore’s portrayal (well, she did win an Oscar).

Writer’s Takeaway: It had been a while since I read a book in third-person limited that had me aware of the limits of the narrator. Alice would meet someone and then thirty minutes later meet that person again like it was the first time. As the reader, you’re aware of it happening but you’re also aware that Alice is lost and a bit confused. It was very well-chosen and executed.

A great story with strong characters that only had me wishing for slightly tighter prose. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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