Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life--and her relationship with her family and the world--forever.
I was taken back and couldn't put this one down. Very realistic and informative as
well as moving. Somehow, Genova gives us a high note to end on, one of love and devotion. She finds a way to illustrate the beauty in redefined relationships. It is a testament to her talent as an
author to be able to do that. This book will not let you forget (irony, I know) how painful and difficult this disease is. Just like Alice, it cries out not to be taken for granted, not to pushed
aside, and not to be pitied. It asks you to be aware and be educated
and treat Alzheimer’s as you would any disease. Genova eloquently writes (as Alice’s thoughts):
"She wished she had cancer instead. She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this, and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she’d have something that she could fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she’d be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.
"Alzheimer’s disease was an entirely different kind of beast. There were no weapons that could slay it… And while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity. Those with cancer could expect to be supported by their community. Alice expected to be outcast. Even the well-intentioned and educated tended to keep a fearful distance from the mentally ill. She didn’t want to become someone people avoided and feared."
Genova hits on so many pieces of the disease. So many aspects of Alice’s daily life are taken note of and highlighted in some way. There’s the mysterious sound she cannot identify, the loss of her ability to lick ice cream without it dripping onto her hands, the inability to remember her favorite flavors, seeing holes in the ground instead of rugs. Every sense is affected and experienced in this book.
Telling the story from such an unreliable witness is a tough job, and Genova handles it brilliantly. As a reader, I was thrust into the situation along with Alice, unsure of the setting or the time or what had happened five minutes before. Genova also offers some poignant scenes where we the reader know what Alice has forgotten, and our heart breaks for her. When she forgets her daughter, her husband, the layout of her house, we mourn the Alice lost right along with her and her family. I felt Alice's frustration at forgetting words and people and most of all being shut out because she was stigmatized with this disease as though she were already dead. Most telling was the arguments her family would have in front of her about her. Her opinions were forgotten by those who should have been helping her maintain her freedom of choice.
The triggers for Alice’s memory lapses were intriguing. One minute, Alice would remember the day she was told of her family’s death. A few pages later, she would ask for her mom and sister and then re-live the loss over again of their deaths. Genova could skillfully take a normal situation and spin it on its head. Suddenly, instead of 4 p.m. its 4 a.m., and she’s been to her office in her pajamas and slippers all night long.
The story never fought with itself in terms of extra drama thrown around. It was about a woman and her family struggling with this terrible diagnosis. It was coping with an illness and, thankfully, not something that brought a previous extramarital affair to light or an illegitimate child confession. The effects of Alzheimer’s are enough, and the author tells it in a caring and nonjudgmental way. While there is a small amount of family drama, it’s just the right amount you’d expect in a family. Their questions and confusion enhanced everything that was spinning out of control for Alice.
I found Alice and her family deeply woven and believable characters. Each lends a different viewpoint in dealing with this disease and their relationships with their mother. The character of Alice is not normally one I would be interested in as a main character. But the choice is perfect for this story as Alice can strip down the disease for readers of the book as well as highlight what parts of her mind she is losing. She is a well-respected psychology professor who loves to use her mind for research, mentoring, teaching, etc. The impending loss of this tool for her is doubly devastating. It’s what she’s built her life off of. I think this is most beautifully put in these thoughts of Alice’s:
"(Dr. Davis) “Have you thought about whether or not you’d like to donate your brain to research?”
"She had thought about it. She imaged her brain, bloodless, formalin-perfused, and Silly Putty-colored, sitting in the cupped hands of a medical student. The instructor would point to various sulci and gyri, indicating the locations of the somatosensory cortex, the auditory cortex, and the visual cortex. The smell of the ocean, the sounds of her children’s voices, John’s hands and face. Or she imaged it cut into thin, coronal slices, like deli ham, and adhered to glass slides. In such a preparation, the enlarged ventricles would be striking. The empty spaces where she once resided."
All, including Alice, must learn that even as the disease ravages the innermost parts of her brain, she is still Alice. She is still their loving wife and mother and still deserves to be treated with honor and respect.
Another touching moment was when Alice was holding her granddaughter, and she is assured by her daughter that the tiny baby in her arms will never have to struggle with this disease. It was like a burden of guilt had been lifted from her before she had completely forgotten her daughter’s name. She could pass into the next phase of the disease knowing that life could overcome this yet-uncured disease.
Alzheimer’s is my greatest fear in life. My paternal grandfather had it. It was heartbreaking to see. I visited him one time, and he remembered my face. I can still visualize the spark in his eyes. And while he couldn’t recall my name, he knew me. He was happy I was there. It is what I keep as my last joyful memory between us. My grandfather, for one moment, was able to make his way through the maze of his mind because a memory of my face was strong enough to breakthrough. Nowadays, I find myself documenting everything. I journal, I scrapbook, I write as much down as possible. I don’t want to lose my memories. Even if I try to prep my life “just incase,” I know that I too will wrestle with the same things Alice does. I don’t want it. I want to go out remembering my life and my gifts and my family. But we do not have a choice in these things. This book is a profound and intelligent portrayal of one woman’s progression of the disease. I was scared but also left hopeful at the same time. I look forward to anything else Genova writes, and I will keep this book forever in my heart. All I can say is (deep breath) “Wow.”
"Descendants of Avalon"
Released via Inklings Publishing
("The Forgotten" volume 2)
Reviewed and awarded the
2016 Indie Editor's Choice
by the Historical Novel Society.
Long listed for the Historical Novel Society 2017 Indie Award.
Goodreads profile at: https://www.goodreads.com/JElse