Length: 292 pages
Setting: Boston, near Harvard, present day
Interest: It was my book club’s choice in 2009 and in 2016 (different book clubs).
Summary: We follow Alice, a professor in psychology at Harvard, as she is diagnosed with and succumbs to early onset Alzheimer’s. She is a well-respected teacher, research, and lecturer. Then, she starts to have memory problems – forgetting the names of things, her schedule, where she is. She first chalks it up to menopause, but soon realizes it is something more. She tries to hold on to her life, but can barely make it teaching to the end of her semester. She’s adrift without her job. We can see her losing her thread of thought, repeating herself, and making more and more detailed to-do lists. Her version of the disease is caused by an autosomal dominant mutation which she passed on to one of her daughters. That daughter is trying to conceive, so she uses genetic screening on some embryos to ensure she doesn’t pass on the disease. Alice grows much closer to and accepting of her other daughter’s choices as she loses awareness of her life.
Final thoughts: This was a fascinating book that I could not put down. Luckily it was short enough that I could read it in a day. Watching Alice’s descent into the late stages of the disease was like a train wreck – horrible, but I couldn’t put it down. It was interesting to watch her family’s reaction to her mental changes. Her husband had the hardest time dealing with the new situation. He kept looking for new ways to try to fix his wife, whereas Alice’s daughters just accepted that this was the new way of life.
I absolutely loved the book, and everyone in the book club agreed. Writing from the point of view of the person losing her mind was dangerous. How could you show the internal monologue of someone who was losing language? Eventually, Alice got to the point where she didn’t understand the words as much as she understood the intent of the words. It was even more significant that Alice, a psychologist who studied the importance of language, lost her ability to communicate. At first, her loss of her job was nearly her loss of self. Her job had been her whole life, and who was she if she couldn’t teach and do her research? Even with the depressing subject, I thought the book ended on a high note as Alice was surrounded by the love of her family.
Title comes from: Even as Alice was losing her rational mind, she was still Alice. Someone pointed out in book club that over time her mind became much quieter, since it was no longer full of language and plans. Instead, she just lived life as it happened to her.
Reading challenges fulfilled: none since I read this book in a previous year, and just skimmed it for book club this week to remind myself what the book was about
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