After reading a couple of disappointing books lately, I was delighted to actually enjoy a work of fiction. Left Neglected may not be a great work of literature (although that would depend on your definition), and I read it from cover to cover in under three hours, but it was a compelling story with themes that kept me thinking about them long after I finished the last page.
Left Neglected, like the author’s first book Still Alice, involves a brain problem. This makes sense and is given added realism by virtue of the fact that the author holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. Genova’s academic pedigree also helps explain her common theme of asking what would happen to a woman whose self-concept is built around being smart, if the source and result of her intellect were compromised?
The main character in Left Neglected is a successful, put together corporate mom juggling a demanding job as a VP of a consulting firm with the responsibilities of three young children, a marriage, and a mountain of school, mortgage, and lifestyle bills. All of the balls stay in the air more or less, and the family trucks along until the morning when Sarah is checking something on her phone as she drives in to work and gets in a horrible car accident that causes brain damage. Her personality and ability to reason are intact, but she has left neglect, an actual condition where the brain refuses to acknowledge or see what is left of the midpoint of the person’s body.
Forced to spend weeks in a rehab hospital, then even longer at home working on basic tasks like walking and reading and a myriad of other previously easy tasks, Sarah is forced to slow down for the first time in her life and really take stock of who she is. As was the case in Still Alice, Left Neglected doesn’t have a perfectly tied up happy ending, but the end is both realistic and hopeful which, in my opinion, is far more satisfactory than the fake pink and purple butterfly approach some books take to problems.
As I read about Sarah’s reassessment of her identity, I found myself thinking about the ways I’m tempted to base my identity in temporary things. Perhaps this is a statement of my own weak faith, but I’m aware that at a deep level I base my self-concept on being smart, on being able to do a lot of things well and quickly, on being a mother. If any of these things were removed, to be honest, I would struggle tremendously to find meaning and purpose and regain my sense of myself. This is troubling because, of course, any of those things could disappear in a flash.
Although I imagine this was not an outcome the author envisioned, I wound up thinking about how my faith provides an identity that can’t be lost or taken away. At times when my temporal identity has been challenged, I have drawn strength from my spiritual identity, but I was convicted while reading this book that I shouldn’t use my faith as a fallback, but rather that ought to be my primary identity all the time. In the past when I’ve attempted that I have too often tried to either strangle a part of my identity or moving my focus from one thing to another (like the time I replaced a reliance on my career for identity with a reliance on being a full-time mom for identity). It strikes me now that when I truly have a primary focus on who I am spiritually, I am free to enjoy and be grateful for my identity as a smart person, a capable person, and a mother without relying on those things. I am free to hold those blessings lightly.
I think the fact that Left Neglected changes the reader’s perspective, calls the reader to think deeply about life, and challenges some of the accepted values of our society makes it a valuable work. Sure there are a few things I would have done differently with the plotting, the language and diction don’t soar like some of my favorite authors’, and you won’t find the sort of overwrought workshoppy imagery that apparently wows the literary establishment these days (sigh), Genova writes stories that are compelling, thoughtful, and unique and I highly recommend them.
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