We recently lost Dunreith’s father Marty to Alzheimer’s, so I had expected reading Lisa Genova’s debut novel to be an emotional experience.
I just didn’t realize how emotional.
Genova’s self-published work tells the story of Alice Howland, a tenured Harvard neuropsychologist at the height of her powers and in the midst of a rich and full life with a loving, if work-obsessed husband, three grown children, and a dizzying schedule of teaching, research, conferences and lectures.
Things start to go awry for Howland, though. She forgets the word “lexicon” during a packed lecture. She leaves her Blackberry at the restaurant she is eating at with her youngest daughter Lydia, a brilliant aspiring actor resistant to her mother’s unceasing suggestions that she attend college.
And, in the most troubling development, she does not know how to get back to her Cambridge home from Harvard Square.
The third of these developments, along with other examples of encroaching memory loss, prompt Howland to get tested.
After going through the range of what she considered plausible explanations-among these are stress, exhaustion and menopause-Howland receives the unwelcome news that she has early onset Alzheimer’s.
Although the news devastates her, she keeps it for a while from her husband, her children and her circle of colleagues and friends at the university where she had worked for a quarter century. The disease’s relentless advance, Howland’s gradual acceptance of it, and her changed relationship with her family and others comprise the major elements of the rest of the book.
Still Alice gains emotional heft as it advances. The product of hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations with people affected by the disease, the book shows Howland’s deterioration in increments, complete with highs and lows.
Highs consist of giving a speech she had labored mightily over to a packed conference. In the speech she explains that her future inability to remember what she has said does not mean that she is not living fully in the present. They also include the comfort she gains from starting a support group with other early onset sufferers. And they mean her daughter Anna’s giving birth to a pair of happy, healthy and Alzheimer’s gene-free twins.
The lows are brushing her teeth with moisturizer, being unable to run because she keeps falling and mistakenly placing her Blackberry in the freezer. The lowest part perhaps of all comes from her husband’s inability to accept the changes in her and his insistence on taking a job at Sloan-Kettering in New York.
In the end, Alice’s cognition is almost completely eroded, but she retains the capacity to discern and articulate emotions, including love.
Still Alice effectively drops in a substantial amount of scientific information about Alzheimer’s and some of the available drugs that can delay, but not stop, the identity-robbing disease. The dialogue in places feels stilted and some of the scenes come off as a bit precious. Still and yet, the book is an impressive and moving evocation of Alzheimer’s hold on a group of people who usually consider themselves too young to contract it.