Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

“... just because [butterflies'] lives were short didn't mean they were tragic... See, they have a beautiful life.”

Our memories are what make us. They mold us, shape us, break us and ultimately form the person we go on to become.

Like everyone, I have had my fair share of memories – both good and bad. There is a lot of good in there that I look fondly at. And then there are those bad memories, too. Memories I am too scared to even scratch the surface of.

I lost my mother to cancer ten years back; first, it was in the breast and then it progressed to the liver. This is the first time in my life I am typing this sentence. It felt odd doing so.

I have stayed away from that part of my mother’s life – the one that had been ravaged by cancer – for as much as I can. I keep those dark memories locked inside. I don’t like to talk about them with anyone. They make me uncomfortable. And, like many say, they hold me down. But, despite my best efforts, they keep eating at me. They gnaw at my insides from time to time. But still, I try to shove them down. Deep inside. I let them simmer. I let them stay buried.

Last week I read the book Still Alice by Lisa Genova and that part of my memory bank – the one that I had forcibly kept locked – was pried open again.


Over the last few years, I had consciously stayed away from books that are dark, depressing or morbid. Instead, I have surrounded myself with warm and happy books. They keep me safe and comfortable. But sometimes, I guess, you need to step out of that zone. Sometimes you need to shake yourself up. Sometimes…

I remember watching a part of the movie ‘Still Alice’ starring Julianne Moore last year and had been fascinated by it. On researching further, I came to know the movie was an adaptation of a novel by the same name. So, even though I knew the book would distress me, I went ahead and bought it the very next week. The plot had me genuinely intrigued. However, I never quite gathered the courage to read it. It remained on my shelf, staring at me for months. Until, just like that, I decided to finally give it a chance last week.

Once I dived in, there was no turning back.

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland - a 50-year-old Harvard professor of cognitive psychology who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. At the beginning of the book, we meet Alice who is an extremely bright and successful woman and lives with her husband, John, a scientist. Alice loves her life, her career and her and has tremendous respect everywhere. She has three grown children - two of whom are professionals and one who is a struggling actor. Her family functions around her. Until the Alzheimer begins to rip her life apart.

As the story progresses we come to know how Alice struggles to cope with the effects of this dreaded disease and how it begins to corrode not just her brain but everything that is dear to her. Bit by bit, Alice begins to lose her memories, her perception of sense and her very self. She loses her job at the university and her relationship with her family begins to get strained as well.

The story is beautiful and frightening. Its language is simple and gripping.  It is not an amazing piece of literature but it sure is important. The author does a wonderful job of portraying the biological and psychological effects of this disease and Alice’s memoir-of-sorts of Alzheimer's forces us to think. It forces us to be uncomfortable. It is raw and real.

The reader is thrust alongside Alice’s heartbreaking and terrifying journey and you cry along with her frustrations and despair as she keeps losing pieces of her self. Lisa Genova offers some moving scenes to show us Alice’s loss. She forgets her daughter, her husband, the layout of her house and even how to lick an ice-cream - things that were part of her day-to-day life. She feels embarrassed and her self-confidence is completely shattered. Who once was an intelligent and confident woman now suddenly finds that she can no longer rely on her strongest tool – her mind – and every day she tries desperately to hold on to her falling memories.

“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 herself the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she'd have something to 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 it defeated her in the end, she'd be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.”

What works for the book is that it isn't melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. The characters are real. The situations they deal with are real. Uncomfortably real. Why this book connects is that Alice could be anybody. It could be you, me or anyone else you know or hold dear. And that is why it is scary.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, our memories are what make us. If we begin losing those memories, we lose ourselves. Good or bad, those memories are essential to every being. And that is where Still Alice is chilling. Because you realize while reading it that Alzheimer's doesn't simply make you forget memories, it goes in and completely destroys them. What it also does is deeply affect the person’s family. At times, I felt really angry at John, Alice’s husband, for being selfish and inconsiderate. But then realized how difficult it must have been for him to see his partner transform before his very eyes into a person he did not recognize.

Despite the overarching Alzheimer’s narrative and its effects on a person, the book isn’t all depressing and sad. I liked how Alice finds meaning even in her degrading state. One of the highlights of the book for me was how her tumultuous relationship with her actress daughter, Lydia, improves as the story moves along. At the beginning of the story, Alice doesn’t approve of 21-year-old Lydia’s passion for acting in plays and wants her to get a college degree instead, much to the chagrin of her daughter. As she begins to grapple with Alzheimer's, however, it is Lydia who adapts to her the most and begins to repair the ground she had lost with her mother. It is beautiful and touching and I wish there was more to it there.

The best part of the book comes towards the end when Alice gives a heartfelt speech at the Dementia Care conference. As I was reading Alice’s speech, I felt a strange sensation coursing through me. I wanted to shut the book down, get up and begin applauding even as tears rolled down my cheeks. It was powerful. It was moving. And it was inspiring.

I am sharing a little extract from that part. 

“...My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I'll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I'll forget it some tomorrow doesn't mean that I didn't live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn't mean that today doesn't matter.”

And that, I feel, is my best take away from this story. That even though you might be falling. Even though there might be darkness ahead. You can still make this moment, the one that you are living in, count. You might have heard such messages – those which talk about living in the moment – in so many different and cliched ways. But this story actually makes you appreciate what you have; your loved ones, your life, and most importantly, your memories.

If I had to sum up, I would say Still Alice is a poignant psychological narrative of a woman’s decaying mind and how, despite all odds against her, she tries to keep pieces of her alive. She tries to be still Alice.

I will not be picking up a similar book for some time now. It's back to my happy, little space. Still Alice has left me mentally exhausted. It has been difficult for many reasons. I can’t stop thinking about Alzheimer's and how do the people affected by the disease deal with it. I am currently working towards visiting the dementia care center in my city to understand this disease more. I think I would need to do that.

I would recommend Still Alice to everyone. It is frightening and disturbing, yes. But it is also very important. The story makes you uncomfortable. It forces you to think about your life and about everything you hold dear. And, in many ways, value it more.

It has real characters, dealing with a real situation. And despite the heaviness of the narrative, I found reading this to be an engrossing experience. One that I shall remember for a very long time.


Now that I am done with the review,  I would like to add a little personal rant here - on why Still Alice affected me deeply on a personal level.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this write-up, I lost my mother to cancer. The last six-seven months of her life, especially, were extremely tough on her, the family and me. It has been ten years, but images from those last months of her life still haunt me; they come tumbling out of the darkness without warning and slap me right across the face. I have tried very hard to shove those memories down. To throttle them. But it hasn’t really worked.

As I was reading Still Alice, those memories came crawling back again. Alice’s transformation from a strong and smart woman to one where she literally couldn't look at herself in the mirror was extremely heart-rending. Reading this reminded me of how my mother – a bubbly, vivacious, warm and kind woman – completely degenerated because of the disease she had been inflicted with. Her beautiful, flowing hair was gone. She became bloated all over. Her skin became pale with cracks everywhere. Her lips became dark and patchy, and the twinkling smile on her face slowly faded as well. That cruel metamorphosis of hers has ripped me apart so badly, so viciously, from inside that a part of me is now beyond mending. 

I often questioned why the life of such a beautiful and kind person was cut brutally short. But there weren't any answers. 

The thing with my mother, though, was that she never stopped fighting. Until the very end. She lost. But I will always remember that spirited fight. That will to live. That twinkle in the eyes. 

And like Alice’s mother tells her once:

“... just because [butterflies'] lives were short didn't mean they were tragic... See, they have a beautiful life.”

Yes, my mother’s life was short. But it was a beautiful life. It had meaning. And as I will step away from this book now, I will hold these lines close to my heart to battle those demons of my former life.

If I could, I would like to forget those horrific memories. But, perhaps, they are essential to my being – especially to my creative self. Perhaps that is how it was meant to be. With that in mind, I end this. In the hope that I would one day find a way to cope with the horror of my past and ensure that I always cherish the beautiful butterfly of my life... And the color it had spread in it with its little wings.

1 comment:

  1. What a review! After reading this you know what’s in store for you.. You want to stay away from the book yet you want to dive in and indulge in it.. We never think that things like this can happen to us or anyone from our family but forget that we are as much vulnerable too and we just overlook that fact being safe and happy in our cocoons.And that’s reason we stay away from books of this kind.. But by what you have described i think yes, we all should read it once.. to experience what trauma people going through such a cruel disease experience and yet try to stay positive.. And about your part I am at loss of words... I won’t say I understand because no I really don’t.. I can only imagine how heart ripping must have been for you.. Even at this age there are times when in certain situations my mother still misses her mother badly even though nani had a long and happy life but I guess our lives are so entwined with our mother’s that we will never stop needing them till end.. And don’t let that happy memories or even the worst memories die because happy memories define you and keep you going and the bad ones mold you and make you strong... You just poured your heart out in this review.