When I hear the words “book-to-screen”, I’m naturally skeptical. If I haven’t already seen a film adaptation, I take stock in reading its paper version before details from the silver screen cloud my judgment.
Such was the case when I picked up a copy of Lisa Genova’s “Still Alice” from a promo table at work one day. Working for a company owned by Penguin-Random House, I find myself in regular contact with self-published books from a variety of imprints and publishers. Simon & Schuster, the company that owns the imprint Gallery Books, happens to be one of them.
After two weeks of this book sitting in the backseat of my car, staring at me each morning as I scraped ice off the mid-winter windshield, I decided to read it. Here are my thoughts. (Disclaimer: There may be spoilers ahead.)
“Still Alice” begins with a tone-setting scene between Alice, the book’s protagonist, and John, her husband and foil for the entirety of the book. John flutters about their Cambridge house looking for his glasses, while Alice reads over a paper recently submitted for peer review to the Journal of Cognitive Psychology. The relationship between John and Alice is established here. John, a Harvard biologist, struggles with a harmless daily predicament while his wife, Alice – in many ways his superior as a cognitive psychologist and linguistics professor – endearingly and almost mockingly hands over his spectacles, which she found not by recollection, but by an unplanned glance into the kitchen.
As the story progresses, we watch Alice in her natural habitat. She takes the podium at various high-profile lectures and conferences, self-assured of her ability and low on anxiety. She teaches upper-level Harvard students the ins and outs of language, consistently doted upon for her mastery of syntax, acquisition, semantics and comprehension, among other topics. She even mentors a rising graduate student named Dan, assisting him with a thesis.
But things start to change as she experiences seemingly small lapses in short-term memory that have rather embarrassing or disheartening consequences. Each of these scenes is portrayed with a careful honesty that, at first, seems almost too safe. Genova’s story is by no means an intellectually challenging read, although it incorporates scientific language suitable for describing a Harvard-level professional’s work and the diagnosis of, and terminology surrounding, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
But what Genova’s writing lacks in complexity and variance, it makes up for in transparent gut instinct and raw human emotion. There are a few borderline cliché sentences that I wish were stronger and the sentence structure throughout the book purely exists to serve its purpose. But Genova’s writing style lends a certain level of poignancy and truth to the often overcomplicated study, treatment and care of Alzheimer’s patients.
As with any book of this emotional nature, there are bound to be teary-eyed page turns and moments where joy or anger is piqued. But this novel left no emotion unearthed. I wept for nearly the entirety of the book, experiencing jolts of anger or happiness at choice intervals. Genova’s portrayal of Alice’s progressive cognitive decline is heart-wrenching and profound. Witnessing a brilliant woman in her prime (not only mentally, but physically and emotionally) lose parts of herself she considered second nature is particularly moving when the words on the page are presented as clearly as true life happens. Alice begins her Alzheimer’s journey fearful and full of angst, cursing her genealogy and the mutated gene her body possesses. She then runs into ever-accelerating roadblocks to her recollection of acquaintances and appointments, until her grasp of her own home’s configuration and her family members’ identities fades to gray.
Honestly and without pretension, Genova creates an entirely affecting reality in 292 pages. Her portrayal of a scientist husband wrestling to accept an inherent truth as unalterable fact, an intellectual fighting to retain control of her own mind, and the reactions of those affected by Alice’s continued degeneration made me feel as if I were afflicted by the same mind-erasing disease, holding hands with Alice as a peer. The repetition of simple facts Alice commits herself to retrieving daily from memory slowly begin to change before our eyes, challenging us to piece together Alice’s life story (a life before Alzheimer’s) while Alice begins to believe her incorrect recollections are, in fact, true. The story blends harsh reality with dream-like moments of victory for Alice, even in the final stages of her journey.
Each page is intriguing, making this a book to keep and remember.