Last night I stayed up from 11:15 to 1:30 reading Still Alice from cover to cover. I was so gripped by the story that I couldn’t put it down. This will definitely be one of my top reads for 2011, and many thanks to Amy K for the recommendation!
The premise of the story is how early onset Alzheimer’s disease affects a 50 year old Harvard professor. I think the reason this grabbed me so completely is that I find the prospect of losing my mind utterly terrifying. Some people would be devastated to lose a leg or be paralyzed or lose their hearing or their hair or their sense of taste, but I think I could deal with any of those things as long as I had my mind and could still read and think. The main character in the book, Alice, is a psychology professor who studies language, so to lose language because of Alzheimer’s is particularly poignant.
I think the author did a masterful job of capturing Alice’s realization that something is wrong, personalizing the descent into Alzheimer’s, and unpacking the issues of where identity and meaning really rest. Alice struggles with why she should continue to live without her ability to think and speak and understand, and I think that is a very realistic problem. I loved how the author allowed Alice to think through the question of how we love people – is it in our heads or our hearts? Although so many points in the story were terrifying as I read of Alice’s descent into the disease, I thought the ending was hopeful and satisfying.
As I read I thought about what I would want to do if I found out I only had a few more months to use my mind. Like Alice, I think I would want to read a ton of books, but to be honest I’m not sure I would read Proust although I have the boxed set and keep telling myself I should read it. I would also wish I had finished writing my book, and I would feel desperate to create really deep memories with my children since they wouldn’t know me as myself for much longer. Sometimes thinking along these lines can really help crystallize what is important. If you knew you’d only be mentally present for a short time, what would you prioritize?
I would heartily recommend Still Alice either for an individual or a book club. There are so many issues in the story that would be wonderful to discuss with a group or just to think about on your own. If you read it, be sure to let me know what you think!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.