Still Alice Summary

Lisa Genova

Still Alice

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Still Alice Summary

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Still Alice is the critically acclaimed debut novel of Lisa Genova, and it starts with seemingly minor episodes of forgetfulness by the protagonist, Alice Howland.  Unbeknownst to Alice, a Harvard psychologist and expert linguist, she is starting to exhibit the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  She forgets certain words during a presentation at Stanford, she goes for a run in her Harvard Square neighborhood and can’t find her way home, and she appears to be forgetful during a conversation with her youngest child, Lydia.

Alice tells her own story in this first-person narrative, and each chapter highlights a month of the disease’s progression and how it affects Alice’s life.  Not only must the ambitious and professional Alice deal with the physical progression of the disease, but she must handle the emotional components, as well.  Her relationships with her accomplished husband John, who is a Harvard biologist, and three grown children are all influenced by Alice’s degenerative, incurable disease.

Over the course of the two years described in this book, fifty-year-old Alice must adapt to Alzheimer’s increasing control of her life.  Initially, she thinks her symptoms are related to menopause, and she makes an appointment with a doctor, who prescribes an MRI.  She leads her life in a normal fashion by enjoying a birthday celebration with offspring Anna and Tom, for example, but doubts start to abound.  She can’t remember the course material she is supposed to teach; she remains in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she is supposed to be at a Chicago conference; and she can’t even remember the name of a student’s wife only scant minutes after meeting her at a Christmas party.

Alice tries to cope on her own, preferring not to tell her husband, who is immersed in his own research.  But when she does disclose the news, he is disbelieving and urges her to undergo genetic testing from a neurologist.  The confirmation of the devastating news that Alice is indeed suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s is compounded when the doctor announces that the disease possesses a strong genetic link.  Her children are at risk of developing the disease.

Alice sorts through past relationships, coming to the conclusion that her deceased father might have suffered with Alzheimer’s.  She starts to bear resentment toward him and his alcoholism as she fights her own fears, shame, and thoughts of suicide.  She wants to curb this disease and opts to use a trial drug in opposition to her husband, who wants her to use other medications.

Life is becoming more challenging for Alice.  A simple vacation becomes difficult when Alice is unable to find the washroom.  John’s work obligations continue, so Lydia is enlisted to watch her mother.  Alice can no longer recall that her parents and sister have died.  But Alice still asserts her role as mother to Lydia, strongly urging Lydia to attend college over pursuing an acting career.  Tragically, Alice soon fails to recognize her youngest child.

By September of 2004, Alice can no longer hide the deterioration of her condition in her work environment.  She has received very poor reviews from her students, and she simply cannot teach at the level that was her norm.  She will have to forfeit her beloved career, though she does get permission from the department head to do so gradually.

When Alice’s birthday arrives, daughter Anna shares the good news that she has become pregnant through in-vitro fertilization.  Her children give her the gift of her life on video, a permanent record of who she was before this disease took its toll.  But life’s stresses continue.  While Alice makes a positive effort to start a support group for others afflicted with the disease, John is offered a major opportunity in New York City.  He wants to relocate, but Alice does not want to leave Cambridge.  Her life is unraveling, and as a result of leaving her Blackberry in the refrigerator, she has lost the device that helped her record thoughts and information before they disappeared from her mind.

In March of 2005, Alice presents a public statement at the Alzheimer’s Association Annual Dementia Care Conference.  Her last lucid act results in an inspirational speech, but her abilities to think with clarity and to speak articulately are gone.  When Alice discovers a file named “Butterfly” on her computer, she reads the message that she wrote to herself; it was a time before her affliction manifested itself too deeply.  She had left instructions for her suicide, but John has moved the pills that she needs to commit this final act of destruction.

At this point, Alice fails to recognize her own husband, who happens to save her life by redirecting her away from an oncoming car.  By summer, Alice and John revisit their summer place, but Alice no longer recognizes it or herself.  Her memory returns only for moments after reading a book that she co-authored with her husband years ago.  Both John and she lament when they discover that the medical trial in which Alice opted to participate actually expedited the decline of patients.  The epilogue depicts Alice in her home as Lydia reads to her.  Though Alice no longer understands much, she does recognize the love embedded in the words and the love of those around her.