One of my book groups chose this for this month's book. When I heard what we would be reading, I wrinkled my nose and sighed. This was a book I intended to give a miss as it just didn't much interest me and had such potential for the treacle that was evident in Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook (a book I loathed). I can't begin to explain how glad I am that I was forced to read this. The group's discussion was more personal than focused on the book but the book is really well done and viscerally effecting.
Alice is a Harvard professor whose specialty is cognitive psychology, specifically in the way that we make langauge. She is well respected in her field and frequently off giving speeches at conferences. Her husband is also a Harvard professor and their children are grown and pursuing their own lives. So when Alice starts to forget small things, she chalks it up to stress, tiredness, or perhaps even menopause, knowing that her symptoms are indeed normal for any of these situations. But when she goes out for a run and gets lost in harvard Square, a place she has been in countless times on countless days, she knows that she should see a doctor, still hoping that she'll be told that everything is normal and knowing that it isn't.
As Alice starts down the path of a probably diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer's disease, followed by genetic confirmation, Genova continues to have Alice herself narrate the story so the reader lives the denial, poignancy, and helplessness of the patient rather than the caregiver. And this decision adds to the power of the novel. Alice is a very intelligent woman. She knows exactly what she's losing, and it's more than her memories. It's the sense of herself and those things that make her uniquely Alice. In the early stages of the disease, she tells of her relationship with her grown children, and especially her youngest daughter, the family rebel. There is no suggestion that Alice has been the perfect mother, she details her failings honestly and believably, but it is the imperfect mother that they had whom each of her children wants to hold onto.
This is not a handbook on how to handle a loved one's descent into the fog of Alzheimer's. It is a powerful and heartbreaking look at the breakdown of the person, the family, and the relationships with outsiders that Alzheimer's strips from its victims. Alice's intention to leave this world before she can't answer her touchstone questions, the questions which define her sense of self is shattering, understandable, and begs the question of who a person is if those things that defined them, internally and externally are all gone.
Genova's novel is really exquisitely done. The characters are human, with the failings and frustrations of real people. And Alice is, of course, the central character, showing the reader, through the eyes of the afflicted, the great extent of this horrible disease. Each of the women in my book group who had had a family member affected by this disease, early onset or not was grateful for the insight into the mind of the sufferer, even when that insight was necessarily painful. And all of us admitted to sobbing in the end. This disease ravages so many, those with the diease and those caring for someone with the disease. It truly is a thief and Genova has shone a light on the great need for better understanding, more research, and ultimately a cure. Highly recommended.