Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Still Alice (and a Little Bit About Philanthropy)

I am a proud member of Sigma Kappa Sorority here at the University of Washington, and like every other sorority I know of, we spend a good portion of our time and effort during the course of the scholastic year dedicated to pursuing philanthropic projects in our free time. Therefore, when I found a book that would allow me to get a more in-depth look at the disease we raise money all year to fight, I jumped at the chance to pick up a copy. The fact that it was a best-selling novel written by someone lauded by the organization we donate to, was just yet another reason to read Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.

The novel follows the story of professor and cognitive psychologist Alice Howland, as she tackles the terrifying diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Slowly losing her connections to language, her memories, her family, and to reality, Alice must cope with her new form of life by relying on those around her in ways she never anticipated.

Alzheimer's is by no means a rare disease: more than 5 million Americans are currently living with some stage of it, and 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. However, it's not necessarily an easy cause to get people motivated for, especially young college women, who might not have any direct connection to it. I don't know how many times I've heard someone say, "think about The Notebook," when trying to get people to think more in-depth about the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's, but I knew there had to be a narrative that tackled the topic more completely than Nicholas Sparks.

That's why I was so excited to find Genova and Still Alice, which was not only produced from a very scientific viewpoint, and is a best-seller, but also is fully endorsed by the Alzheimer's Association as "Recommended Reading." 

Lisa Genova is - incredibly impressively - a neuroscientist, herself, which lends a very interesting veracity to the account (she got her PhD from Harvard!). Something that struck me, in the book, as having been done especially well, was that it lends an interesting perspective to the medical-hospital relationship with patients, as well as explores potential treatments and early detection for the disease without making commitment to the saving properties of these practices. Her attention to the reality of diseases is also notable in her other works, including Left Neglected (about a woman affected by hemispatial neglect following a traumatic head injury) and Love Anthony (about two women and their relationship with a boy named Anthony, who is Autistic), so you know that Genova is not only passionate about the sources of inspiration for her writing, but about portraying them correctly.

I feel like that's one of the reasons why Still Alice is not literature, in the typical sense: it's very dedicated to the disease itself, more than the story around the disease. But at the same time, the fact that it is impeccably well-written from a scientific standpoint makes it more than fiction, by sort of factoring in the affliction itself as a main character, building the story not just around Alice, but Alzheimer's, too. Does that make sense? This is definitely the second time in a row that I'm going to compare a book to The Bell Jar in a review, but the ways that Genova intertwines the narrative of Alice with a first-person experience at the hands of the reader draws you into her reality so completely, makes the disease easily understandable, even for someone who hasn't had a lot of exposure to it.

Obviously, the book is very sad. I've already said it is impressively realistic, and being that in our current reality, the cure for Alzheimer's disease does not exist, Alice is not prescribed a happy ending. However, the novel still ends - if not happily - then hopefully... and that's something that I did appreciate, just because it so mirrors the objective that our philanthropy is searching for. Alzheimer's can't be overcome, it can't be cured, but there are enough people willing to counter it with increased awareness and support that change must be just around the corner. 

And I do mean business when I say "awareness"... that's the reason my sorority sisters came out in full force at 9:30 in the morning this past Saturday for the "Walk to End ALZ" at South Lake Union. It's what Seth Rogen was striving for when he spoke in front of Congress earlier this year.

It's what I'm hoping happens as Still Alice's movie adaptation gains viewership (no for sure release date yet, from what I can see, but with Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, and *spirit animal* Kirsten Stewart all part of the production, you can bet it will be headed to theaters near you soon!). And if it's already generating Oscars buzz, then you know it's going to be great.

Still Alice and Lisa Genova gave me more hope, for giving more people a chance to relate to a dangerous and destructive affliction they might not empathize with, but at least now they can understand. Together we can #EndALZ! 

To learn more about the fight to end Alzheimer's, head to Alz.Org

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