Still Alice Stilled My Heart

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The third book in my two-person book/movie club is Lisa Genova’s Still Alice. This was a quick read and could easily be read in one day. However, it was difficult for me to get through in one sitting because of the subject – Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice, the main character, is a Harvard psychology professor with a husband, who also teaches at Harvard, and three kids. She finds out that at 50 years old she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease (EOAD). The book catalogs this character’s journey with EOAD. The book is informative and analytical about EOAD and written by an author who has clearly done her homework. While being both informative and analytical, Genova also weaves in an emotional thread. Her work is an eloquent, sensitive look into a devastating disease.

Although I love this book and the way Genova treats the protagonist and the subject, I had a difficult time reading it. I cried sporadically throughout the entire book and embarrassed myself reading it at a coffee shop (no one likes a public crier even if she is pregnant). I know I’m more emotional right now simply because of my pregnancy hormones, but I’m positive I would have had an emotional response to this book anyway. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and watching such a strong, loving man lose his cherished memories and abilities to do the simplest things was difficult to say the least. It got to the point where it was impossible for me to even go visit him, and although I did what was right for me at the time and I know he wouldn’t have known me, I regret not visiting him more. This book brought up those feelings all over again. Also, the struggle of knowing that AD is a hereditary disease is not easy. Both my mom and I have expressed concern over this fact. It didn’t help that one of the women with EOAD was named the same as my mother. It also doesn’t help that as I’m experiencing “pregnancy brain” I am forgetting simple words and tasks and am completely unaware of my surroundings at time. These are also characteristics of AD, and although I know I am simply pregnant not suffering from EOAD, I felt empathy towards Alice.

Alzheimer’s is a silent disease that progresses in a death march, slowly taking away bits and pieces of what and who one is. It is a disease that makes people uncomfortable being around people with it, as one repeats information and slowly forgets the people one loved. There is no known cure, although some medication may help slow down the symptoms. However, it doesn’t always help, and even if it does, it just slows the death march and doesn’t eliminate it. Alice thought the following:

“She wished she had cancer instead. She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this, and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she’d have something that she could fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she’d be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.” Pg. 117

How bad must living with AD be for one to wish for cancer instead? Although I know Alice is a fictional character, Alzherimer’s is not a fictional disease, so the book truly touched my heart. Genova, in turn, touched my heart with her sensitivity towards the subject matter and the naked truth of living with it.

My friend and I saw the movie this past weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the adaptation from the book was done. Of course some things were changed, like where Alice taught, but most of these changes were presumably either necessary because of a lack of permission to shoot on campus or for time restraints. The key parts of the book were included, like her thinking that she would rather have cancer, and the actors were well cast for this book adaptation. It’s not a movie that I would own, but it was worth a watch particularly after reading the book. I didn’t cry as much during the movie as I did with the book, but perhaps this was because I knew what was coming and/or how it’s easier for me to empathize with a character from a book than a movie. There’s just some kind of familiarity with actually reading the book.

If you’re looking for a moving, fictional book on a very real disease with strong characters and family dynamics, I highly recommend Still Alice. Don’t have time to read the book? Then watch the movie. You’ll still come away with the gist of the book.

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