I’ve yet to see the film adaptation that bagged Julianne Moore her long-overdue Oscar, but I took the opportunity to check out the original novel about a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Alice Howland is in a pretty good place as she approaches her 50th birthday. She’s a respected professor at Harvard and a world-renowned linguistics expert. She’s in the best physical shape of her life thanks to regular running. There are grandchildren on the horizon thanks to daughter Anna, a successful corporate lawyer, and son Tom is doing well at the medical school. The only sources of disquiet is the youngest daughter Lydia, who’s pursuing acting career rather than college education, much to Alice’s dismay, and a nagging feeling that she and her husband John, a fellow Harvard professor, aren’t as close as they used to be.
When Alice finds herself lost and disoriented in Harvard Square while out on a run one day, unable to find her way home, she doesn’t give the incident much significance. When a string of memory disturbances forces her to look for an explanation online, she’s relieved that menopause symptoms seem to cover scattered thinking and memory lapses pretty well. But as her personal and professional life gets increasingly disrupted by the fractures in her memory, it looks more and more that something serious is at play. After she completely forgets about an important business trip, Alice makes an appointment with a neurologist, and receives a dire diagnosis: she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The novel traces Alice’s sad deterioration as the disease marches on and leaves her entire family struggling with their new reality. She gets lost, has trouble following conversations, and forgets people she’s been introduced to minutes before. She’s rather surprised to discover that her career doesn’t actually matter as much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still a blow to her sense of self when Alice has to eventually give up her teaching position at Harvard. While her disease makes Alice less judgemental about Lydia’s choices and draws mother and daughter closer, it increases the emotional distance between Alice and John, who clings to his career as a sort of refuge.
Determined to keep her control and dignity for as long as possible, Alice knows that her end won’t be pretty. Which is why she devises a way to end it all before she deteriorates into a truly helpless state and forgets the faces of her own husband and children, by leaving her future self a certain set of instructions to follow.
I wasn’t in the least surprised to read later that Lisa Genova holds a PhD in neuroscience – this book felt incredibly well-researched and imbued with the solid knowledge of the subject matter, without getting too bogged down in impenetrable medical terminology. While it held my attention as a heartbreaking and empathetic account of an incurable disease, it also left me wishing that its literary merits could match Genova’s clinical knowledge. The prose is merely competent at best and heavy-handed at worst; this is a kind of book that’s at pain to spell out the characters’ thoughts and emotions at every turn, as if it didn’t trust the readers to draw the right conclusions without spoon-feeding. It frankly seems like a book that could be improved on with a film adaptation and visual storytelling.
Still, it’s a powerful story that made me feel like I got a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and the human tragedy that comes with it, even if I suspect that Genova perhaps spared the readers from the truly ugly, raw and uncomfortable side of the disease.