Alice Howland, at age 50, is a celebrated professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard University and a well-known and renowned expert in linguistics. She is the wife of a medical researcher and Harvard professor, and they have three well-off adult children.
These facts are why it comes as such a surprise when Alice begins to forget words and gets lost on her daily runs. After losing some of her normal cognitive abilities, she decides to see a neurologist. Following a variety of appointments and tests, she learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“Still Alice” begins in September 2003 and chronicles Alice’s life month-by-month for the next two years. Throughout those two years, we see how this awful disease affects Alice’s relationship with her family, her job and herself.
When Alice first receives her diagnosis, she is hesitant to tell her husband John, but after some time and thought, she realizes it would be best. Alice and John decide to tell their three children, especially because this specific type of Alzheimer’s is familial, meaning that any or all four of them could eventually get it.
The chapter in which Alice and John break the news to their children is the first truly emotional point of the book because Alice apologizes over and over again to them, as she believes it is her fault that they may have to one day go through the same thing that she currently is. Sometimes there is nothing more upsetting than the feeling of not being able to protect your children from harm, and author Lisa Genova does well at striking up emotion with this fact.
As Alice’s well-being goes more downhill—misplacing her phone by putting it in the freezer and not being able to find the bathroom in her family’s beach house—she is forced to quit her well-respected job and must cease her love of traveling to conferences and lectures.
It is so upsetting to see this once-renowned woman begin to fall apart at the seams and lose herself to this terrible disease. It’s a disease with which I have seen in my family, but this book opened my eyes even more to the problems and drama it can cause in someone’s life.
Alice types five simple, personal questions as a note into her BlackBerry and includes instructions for her to go to her computer and open a file she creates named “Butterfly.” It then commands her to swallow a bottle of pills and go to sleep. She is supposed to do this when there is nothing else left for her to lose, when she has totally lost herself.
At that point, Alice is finally starting to realize that eventually, she is not going to remember much of anything, and it’s a tragedy that she has to go through this. Genova writes in such a way that makes readers feel every emotion Alice is feeling, like they are personally experiencing what she is dealing with.
Throughout the book, we see Alice’s mind weaken, but we also see the connections to her family grow and deepen. John becomes more sympathetic to her disease. Their daughter, Lydia, develops a more positive and loving relationship with Alice, one that was not had for the past few years. Alice herself can be seen as finding a greater and more important meaning in life. She starts a small help group for others living with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and she is asked to speak at the Dementia Care Conference, which for me, was the most emotional and uplifting scene in the book.
Hollywood’s adaptation of Still Alice was released in December 2014 and stars Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart. Although it strikes up a good deal of feelings for the story, the book does a much better job at displaying just how much the disease can affect the person who has it, as well as the people who surround that person.
After reading the final page of “Still Alice,” I was left with tears in my eyes and on the page, and I had newfound feelings about Alzheimer’s disease. The book really puts into perspective Alzheimer’s effects, and it immerses the reader in Alice’s world, and puts them in her shoes. I didn’t just read about Alice; I was Alice, and I think that’s what Genova wanted.
If you know someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, want to know more about the disease, or just want a heartbreaking yet inspiring story, read “Still Alice,” and don’t ever forget what you’ve read.