deLille's Reviews > Still Alice

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
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Oct 19, 2009

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bookshelves: medical
Recommended to deLille by: Theone Rutledge
Recommended for: People living with Alzheimer's

The biggest problem with self-published work is the lack of an editor who tells you how to go from good to great. “Still Alice” has a wonderful premise: let’s tell the story of Alzheimer’s from the patient’s point of view, but somehow the book sounds like a professor telling you the Alzheimer’s story from a patient’s point of view, rather than having the patient tell her own story. (Using first person rather than third would have been more effective.) I felt that I was reading nothing more than an extended patient case study in a research journal.

Additionally, the character of Alice blurred with the author’s identity at times… I found myself asking, “Who’s really telling the story here, Alice or Lisa Genova?” Or, one minute you felt like you were inside Alice’s head, you really knew what she was thinking, but then the frame of reference would shift to being outside of her observing from someone else’s perspective. I never totally felt connected with Alice as a real person.

I thought that the supporting cast around Alice could have been better developed, but her children were fairly one dimensional people and her conversations with them were about one subject only given that the children had only one thing that defined each of them (i.e., having a baby, auditioning for a play). The one relationship that rang partly true was the one she had with her husband, who waffled between wanting to do his best to support his wife but also feeling that he needed to look after his own interests given that Alice might not be around in his future. His practicality tended to overrule his emotions, which is typical in many men.

Having lived with Alzheimer’s in my family, I felt that the book glossed over some really hard-hitting aspects of Alzheimer’s. While it touched on the concept of suicide, the book sidestepped the issue by making Alice unable to find her pills when she (momentarily) realized that the time had come. Therefore, the book was able to end with Alice presumably slipping away into oblivion in the arms of a warm, loving, happy family. Ha. My own personal experiences with Alzheimer’s would suggest that this is not an accurate portrayal of what it feels like to actually DIE of Alzheimer’s. I felt bad that Alice had been unable to find her pills and therefore would have to go through something that she -- when she was still lucid enough to write her thoughts down -- had adamantly expressed that she did not want to have to deal with.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 17, 2009 – Finished Reading
October 19, 2009 – Shelved
October 19, 2009 – Shelved as: medical

Comments (showing 1-29)

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Kelly you may like my new book The Bird House with a similar premise -- but I am an author, not a neuroscientist!! Library Journal called it a "a great title for book clubs and fans of 'Still Alice.' "

Angela Wade I totally agree with your review. The ending almost seemed too happy, when there should have been more grit.

Claudette I agree with your review. I had heard much about this book and wanted to like it more than I did. The characters apart from Alice just weren't very well developed so it was difficult to care when we were told how they felt, and the ending seemed far too "happy" given how the children had been portrayed in the rest of the book. I did care about Alice however, and that is what gave this book 3 stars for me.

Jason Just a note related to the suicide part of the book -- my understanding from reading it was that Alice in no way misplaced the pills that were designed to end her life. The subtext is that her husband discovered the Butterfly document on her hard drive and discarded the pills Alice was going to use to kill herself.

There are a couple places where this becomes apparent. First, when arguing with his children about moving to New York, he notes that "She didn't want to be here like this." In the next chapter, he directly asks her questions 1, 4, and 3 from her Butterfly document -- "Alice, do you know what month it is?", "Do you know when Anna's birthday is?", "Alice, where's your office?" -- and receives woefully incomplete answers. Finally, he asks, "Alice, do you still want to be here?" to which she responds, "Yes. I like sitting here with you. And I'm not done yet." This is answer enough for John that he either made the right decision in taking the pills away, or should take the pills from their hiding place before she bumbles into them, as she would have in the next chapter.

message 25: by Hoda (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hoda Marmar I Think that the author is trying to tell us that if you have Alzheimer's and don't remember your own family members, it is still worth it to live. Suicide is not teh answer. If a person isn't productive, it doesn't mean they should kill themselves. The last 'scene' in the book shows how she is loved and feels loved by her daughters and nurse, and how she is able to give love back to her grandchild. It is a good existence, even if she's not a professor anymore.

message 24: by Hoda (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hoda Marmar Also, about the characters. She lived with her husband, so that's why the relationship was more detailed. But her children didn't live with her, and somewhere the author points to the idea in Alice's head about how she was very busy with her work and didn't spend much time with her children.

Angela Jason: that's an interesting observation. I missed that subtext completely: I think I may have been too busy trying to remember that blasted name and address that her neurologist kept asking her to remember and then wondering why I also couldn't I need to reread the book I just read in one sitting to see what else I missed.....

deLille I am not advocating suicide here. I'm just saying that I'm not buying into the whole notion that dying of Alzheimer’s is a peaceful happy drift into oblivion. Maybe it's that way for some people, but I have seen first hand that it's not that way for all.

message 21: by Lisa (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lisa See, I was under the impression that she had already followed the Butterfly instructions earlier in the novel, at the point when she didn't wake up for two days and Lydia was all worried about her. That would explain why there are no pills in the drawer when she tries again at the end of the book. That might also have been the point where John discovered her suicidal intention. Not every attempt at suicide by overdose is successful, and that's what I figured happened then.

message 20: by Susan (new) - rated it 1 star

Susan You said it well...I didn't even make it through the first chapter before I thought---this reads like a dry case history with some bad dialogue thrown in. Then I looked at the author's info and realized why. My dad has Alzheimer's and it is terrible to watch his growing sadness and confusion. But if the author had a partner who could actually write a novel, she could have come up with a truly amazing book. I have to slog along a little farther in the book for my book club...but...I can't recommend this book to anyone.

Emily I feel the same way as Lisa. I figured that she had already taken the pills when she wouldn't wake up and that was why she couldn't find them later.

Either way, I enjoyed your review!

Barry Dank Reviewer states- I never totally felt connected with Alice as a real person.
But, of course, As the story progresses Alice no longer felt connected to Alice as being a real person. The whole notion of what or who is a real person, of the nature of reality becomes a central component of the story. As Alzheimers progresses everything becomes blurred, it is this blurring, this gradual lack of self, the lack of distinguishing self from others since both self and others are blurred and this for me becomes of key importance in this book.

Jennifer Kelland Perry Even though I really liked the book, I have to agree with you. I have lived with Alzheimers in my family and I thought she did kind of gloss over the worst of it at the end of the book.

Mandy Southern In regards to her not finding her pills- I took the part where her husband first tells their children that 'this isn't what Alice wants," while they were all arguing and then follows up with asking Alice if she 'wants to be here,' that he already found the Butterfly file and removed the pills from the drawer.

Michelle Could the book have benefited from the advice of an editor, sure probably, but I felt like the use of third person was intentional and effective. She made the shift at time of symptoms or diagnosis to symbolize the dissociation from self caused by Alzheimer's.

message 14: by Lori (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lori Great review - you have summed up my feelings exactly.

Yviec Just finished this and despite it's flaws - which it undoubtedly has - I rated it 4 stars because overall, it had a real impact on me, despite the slightly too cosy ending.
On the pills - I too thought John discovered Butterfly and hid them; hence her Blackberry being in the freezer; I thought he put it there to ruin it and stop the daily reminder of the three questions popping up...up to this point it hadn't rung true for me that he wasn't overseeing her life in any way. I too, have a relative with Alzheimer's so I know it's not realistic to imagine that he wasn't in some way keeping an eye on her daily activities; he'd have to.
Interesting to read the different viewpoints on this.

Yviec Just finished this and despite it's flaws - which it undoubtedly has - I rated it 4 stars because overall, it had a real impact on me, despite the slightly too cosy ending.
On the pills - I too thought John discovered Butterfly and hid them; hence her Blackberry being in the freezer; I thought he put it there to ruin it and stop the daily reminder of the three questions popping up...up to this point it hadn't rung true for me that he wasn't overseeing her life in any way. I too, have a relative with Alzheimer's so I know it's not realistic to imagine that he wasn't in some way keeping an eye on her daily activities; he'd have to.
Interesting to read the different viewpoints on this.

Michelle Bercier Thanks for your great review. I felt the same but unable to express it the way you did.

Melissa Excellent review. Regarding the pills, I felt John had disposed of them. The long sleep she had is common with Alzheimers. So, I thought that was just a progression of the disease. I think John found the pills and disposed of them (maybe that was part of the discussion he had with the doctor, when she walked in and it felt like she had interrupted something). I have to go back and check the order of events.

Kimberly Lin I felt similarly at times that the story sounded too clinical and professor-like, but since the character of Alice is a psychology professor it made it more believable to me that she could tell the story in this way. Obviously the author drew from her own knowledge and experience as a professor to form the story and character of Alice. I felt very connected to Alice, Lydia, and John. The other children's characters were not that developed but I thought it spoke to the lack of depth in their insight and relationship with Alice.

Julie Parsonnet I agree with Lisa. I think she already took the pills when she slept that long period and couldn't' be aroused. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it is most impossible to kill yourself with the most popular sleeping pills, ie the ones in the Valium family (diazepams). She would have just slept. I got the sense that, when her husband asked her what she wanted, HE really thought she wanted to die and wanted that for her himself. I felt he was disappointed with her desire to keep going because it tied him down to a stranger. I do think that the end was unrealistically happy. As a doctor, I see lots of altzheimer's patients and sometimes (but not usually) their families. Even in the most devoted families, care gets too challenging and the family ultimately pulls away. They may (or may not) visit, but they get on with life, accepting the jntellectual and emotional death before the physical one.

Jennifer I think so many of you missed the part where she took the pills and slept for "a few days." Just before that part, she was thinking about john wanting to move to New York... "The question raged through the black river sludge in her head unanswered. How could he? The answer it found kicked her behind the eyes and choked her heart. One of them was going to have to sacrifice everything." Then, when she was answering her daily questions, she got her address wrong: "Harvard Square" and Anna's birthday wrong: "April." That's when she took the pills.

Michelle Yup Jennifer

Andrea Barol I am so glad you put to words how I was feeling while reading Still Alice. The author spent so much excruciating time with detail after detail of her lost memory. Then summed up positive things in a few paragraphs here and there. I would have enjoyed some explanation or description of how she willed herself to give the speech or find her network of support. And for someone of their stature and standing in the community would have at least found someone to run with her. And also would have had a nurse to help out. I felt the author was making the situation as bad as possible.

Kathlyn I agree re the happy ending - there is no happy ending with alzheimer's - sadly. My brothers best friend has this - he was diagnosed in his late 30s and has two children under 10 years of age. Both my husband and I have had close relatives with this (my grandmother and his mother (who was only in her sixties when she died of AD) but these bear no comparison to my brother's mate. It is difficult to imagine a more horrific disease...

message 3: by Amy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amy I love your assessment and heartily agree. I thought the ending was cozy and tidy and made for nice reading, but not realistic. And John's selfishness and lack of communication was very realistic and made for crappy reading. I wanted to slap him. A friend's parents with Alzheimer's recently died; his assessment wasn't that they were blissfully happy and naive, but scared. Always scared because they had no security or framework for anything happening. That stuck with me.

Lisa I thought that when John asked her several of the "butterfly" questions, he had found the file. When she couldn't answer the questions, he disposed of the pills before she would follow the instructions. I, personally, have no experience with Alzheimer's but thought this was an amazing novel that gave me a glimpse of the disease.

Nena I could not agree with you more! You picked up on so much of what I did. It was a sugar-coated tale of a devastating disease with no cure in sight. I thought the husband was so selfish and pompous and I thought the entire section about him taking her the Harvard "commencement" was a metaphor for him taking up with a mistress which would explain his lengthy and frequent absences. I also felt that the author was ill-informed of the true nature of this disease and the realistic impact it has on the family and the patient. I think the story fell short when it whitewashed Alzheimer's and didn't take Alice into the final 3 stages but left her moderately impacted which would suggest that it's a happily ever after story with Alice having "senior moments". I gave it 4 stars because it held my interest but would never recommend this as educational for anyone going through a loved one's diagnosis. Your review gets 5 stars in my book!

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