“My yesterdays are disappearing and my tomorrow’s are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day.” (5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Pocket Books, 2010
Paperback- 293 pages
Alice Howland is a fifty-year-old psychology professor at Harvard and remarkably respected in the field of linguistics. Just lately she senses that things are somewhat amiss with her: she’s forgetful, loses things and after one particularly frightening episode whilst out jogging, cannot find her way home. Suspecting that the above are all symptoms of the menopause, Alice is devastated to be told that what she is actually experiencing is early onset Alzheimer’s. This book charts Alice’s journey and the impact that the diagnosis has on her and her family.
I feel that this book will be upsetting to people who have unfortunately experienced this illness within their own families as there will be a lot of parallels that are familiar to them. However, it may also shed light on what the sufferers endure and in that respect, could prove to be an eye-opening, informative read. The way that people react to Alice and her diagnosis (including her own family) makes us consider how we would treat someone in that position. There is something of an irony in the way her colleagues deal with Alice- people just don’t know how to react at the news that such an intelligent individual has been diagnosed with such a debilitating disease. She is treated with pity, sometimes with condescension. Alice eventually realises that she is unable to retain her position at the University and the knowledge that she has lost her profession entirely is unimaginable to her. For a woman who has always been at the top of her game, the indignities she now has to suffer are palpable.
Character-wise, I must confess that I didn’t particularly like Alice at the start of the novel. She was intimidating and I felt, pushy as a mother. However, the Alzheimer’s ironically brings she and her daughter Lydia closer and repairs their estranged relationship. Out of Alice’s three children, Lydia actually seems to be the child who deals best with the situation, which was something I did not expect. I wasn’t sure if I liked Alice’s husband John, either. Though it was evident how much he loved his wife, he seemed unable to handle the news and the way he tried to manage the situation towards the end of the book seemed strangely cold from my perspective. However, putting myself in his shoes, nobody knows how they would handle such events and at the end of the day, he and his children were doing what they felt best for Alice and this was very obvious.
One of the most emotional aspects for me personally with this novel was the fact that Alice and her husband knew what her fate would be and were powerless to stop it. As an educated woman always in control of her life and capable and commanding within her career, the knowledge that eventually she would lose her ability to communicate, to learn and to read, was incredibly moving. To understand that one day she would fail to recognise both her husband and her children was heartbreaking and when that day eventually arrived, it was devastating for all of them. Alice’s deterioration was rapid and beyond anyone’s influence to stop, yet was masterfully drawn. By contrast to that, a scene where she speaks about her early onset Alzheimer’s at a conference actually left me cheering (on the inside) as she proves that Alzheimer’s may one day take away her dignity, her independence and her memories, but at least not without a fight. That scene positively screamed optimism.
From what could have ultimately been a maudlin and despressing storyline, Genova remarkably manages to create something both moving and uplifting that resonates with the reader long after you stop turning the pages. That’s not to say it isn’t heartbreaking what Alice endures; it is terrifying and frustrating for both her and her family as the disease fully takes its grip, yet as a reader her circumstances make you feel beyond humble. You wonder how you would cope in Alice’s shoes and admire her family for standing by her and what she is going through: truly the ultimate expression of love. It was honestly hard to believe this was fiction at times, because it sadly felt all too real.
This is a powerful and heartrending story, that admirably also manages to educate the reader at the same time. Though the subject matter may seem intimidating from the outset, I think this should be a must-read novel for anyone looking for an insight into Alzheimer’s disease, or who is just looking for a beautifully crafted and emotional family drama. I am very glad that I read this book.