Wednesday, September 15, 2010

BBAW: Unexpected Treasure - Review: Still Alice

Today’s challenge for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is this:

Wednesday—Unexpected Treasure
We invite you to share with us a book or genre you tried due to the influence of another blogger.  What made you cave in to try something new and what was the experience like?

I’ve mostly been hanging out at other kidlit blogs and thus have only been influenced to try kidlit books, none of which are in a genre I’d have considered new.  So instead I’ll have to review an adult book recommended to me by a friend.   I haven’t taken much time to read adult fiction in the past year, something I’d hoped to remedy and which my friends suggestion kicked off.   Back in my days of avidly devouring every book I could think of, I probably would never have thought of this.

So here it is, the rare review of an adult work on Sam and Boo Book Reviews.  In case it’s not obvious, this one is purely from Sam’s perspective.  Boo couldn’t have cared less.
Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Gallery
Year: 2009
Format: Paperback, also available in Hardcover, Kindle, and Audiobook
Pages: 320
Age Range: Teen, Adult
Kid Love Factor: Non-existent.
Adult Sanity Factor: Depends entirely on the adult.

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard who learns she has early onset Alzheimer’s in her early 50s.  Unlike many media treatments of the disease, this one is from Alice’s point of view.  She’s brilliant, she’s accomplished, she has a beautiful family, and she’s slowly losing it all as her symptoms progress rapidly over the course of a couple of years. 

It’s terrifying and it’s beautiful.  Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist herself, and her knowledge and obvious research make Alice nothing short of utterly believable as a character.

It’s not a fun book.  I was crying through parts of it, but it also does manage to find points of humour that made me laugh out loud.  The secondary characters, Alice’s husband John, her daughters and son, her colleagues, and her health care professionals are all believably human and realistic.  Not perfect, by any means, but true.

I also love a novel that makes me work for it.  Everything the reader gets is skewed through the lens of Alice’s deteriorating mind, leaving us to pick up the pieces and assess what’s really happening.   I’m a lover of unreliable narrators in general (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is the most widely known example I can think of), and this is one of the best instances of it that I’ve seen.

It’s also a bit personal for me.  My grandmother has Alzheimer’s.  She was in her late 80s before she began showing symptoms, so she is not early onset by any means, and her decline is much more gradual than Alice’s.  But it’s still scary and sad to watch and like Alice’s daughter Anna, my mother is terrified of the implications for herself.  At another generation removed, with time and genetic distance to my advantage, I’m simply anxious rather than petrified, though my anxiety is for not only myself, but for my mother and Boo.

For teachers or book clubs, Still Alice comes with discussion questions at the end that might stimulate some very interesting conversations.

Autism Spectrum Bonus For adults and older teens on the spectrum, this book might be an interesting take on the thoughts and perspective of someone who was once neurotypical and is becoming decidedly not.   Apart from your general enjoyment (or lack thereof) of Still Alice, if you have differences in how you process the emotions or motives of others compared to non-autistic folk, it might be interesting to see what your experience viewing the secondary characters through the atypical viewpoint of Alice yields.

Bottom Line:

Still Alice is a breathtaking and traumatic view of the world through the eyes of someone losing their way in it.   I don't in any way regret taking the time to see it.



  1. I've not heard of this book but your review certainly makes me interested in reading it.

  2. It's a quick read, Zoe. You can probably manage it in 2 or 3 uninterrupted hours. If you can find them!

  3. My mother has Alzheimer's and it is a heartbreaking disease to watch progress. My mother is elderly, but she had a cousin who started showing symptoms of Alzheimer's in her 40s! It was tragic.

    Anyway, now I want to read this book.

  4. I highly recommend it, Lioness. It's a wonderful perspective, though I imagine it'll be a fairly traumatic read for you. I've found literature-based trauma sometimes makes me feel better about a subject, but everyone is different. Good luck.


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