Still Alice is not a particularly well-written novel, yet somehow it has captured a wide audience. Indeed, it has been adapted by many theater companies across the country and is now being made into a major Hollywood movie. Why is this? Because Lisa Genova’s story is an important one.
Written from the perspective of Alice, who has been diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, the story seeks to battle typical reactions of discomfort and disengagement, along with an irrational fear that the forgetfulness is contagious. Alice says that being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is “like being branded with a scarlet A.” Genova made some deliberate choices to debunk persistent myths. Alzheimer’s doesn’t just happen to older, simple minded people, but also to fifty year old women who have a Ph.D in neuroscience and are professors of psychology at Harvard, as in the case of Alice.
This novel is an exercise in compassion as we experience Alice’s panic the first time she doesn’t know who or where she is on her daily jog through Harvard square, a place where she has spent most of her adult life. We next experience her family’s different stages of denial, all of which process the reality slower than Alice. We then experience Alice’s desire to live well in spite of the disease, by programming alarms and instructions on her Blackberry. We eventually experience perpetual confusion with Alice when her attempts to manage the disease are no longer possible.
Genova is also trying to communicate that Alzheimer’s robs people of much, but not all. Alice’s verdict: “I am not what I saw or what I do or what I remember. I am fundamentally more than that.”
Alice, without her memories, still retains her spirit, or in other words, her capacity to feel, give and recieve love. It is a good reminder to the reader that this is what makes us human. It is not our cognitive achievements, professional accolades, illustrious degrees (or in Alice’s case, our children’s cognitive achievements, professional accolades and illustrious degrees). Genova paints Alice’s last scenes as at peace, ‘still,’ forced to live in the moment, which even brings healing to her strained relationship with her daughter. We all know that the desolate disease has infiltrated our families and towns. What we don’t know is how to look at this disease as redemptive and Genova’s story is persuasive. It is no wonder the story has spread like wild fire. Hope, after all, is what is truly contagious.