This year, Julianne Moore won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal in the movie “Still Alice”. When I went to see the movie at the theater with my mother, we didn’t yet know it was based on a book by the same name. My mother found the book by accident and immediately bought it because she thought, if the book is just half as good as the movie that was made from it, I need to have it. And she was right.
Now, if you haven’t read the book, it’s alright. The movie is an excellent adaption, the differences in content between the two mediums are marginal. Also, if you haven’t seen the movie either, no worries, you can read this entry anyways, because, logically thinking, there are no spoilers for this story. Alice is a woman who finds out she has Alzheimer’s disease, and once you learn this – which is very early on in the story – you know what’s going to happen. This is not a feel-good movie with a happy ending. Alzheimer’s is not curable, and its symptoms can only get worse as the disease progresses. Hence, you already know the starting and the ending point before you have even opened the book: the story begins with Alice showing symptoms like short-term memory loss and difficulty finding the right words, and it ends with Alice not remembering who and where she is. However, it’s not the ending that counts so much as the how she got there.
It begins with Alice Howland, renowned professor at Harvard with a PhD in Psychology (in the movie she is a linguist, while in the book she is a psychologist also researching in the field of linguistics and psycholinguistics; I guess for the movie they changed it for simplicity’s sake), holding a speech in front of hundreds of students, something she does every week, and suddenly missing the word “lexicon”. It will not come to her, no matter how hard she tries remembering. She ends up paraphrasing it and moving on without paying it much mind, but these kinds of issues start occurring more and more often. At one point she goes on a run around Harvard square, where she lives with her husband and has been working for the last 25 years, and suddenly loses orientation, not knowing where she is. A while later she forgets to visit a conference in Chicago that she had been preparing for extensively. Alice knows something is up, and she goes to see a doctor, and she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at only 50 years old.
From that point on, Alice’s symptoms grow steadily worse. And for Alice, losing her mind means losing herself. For someone who has defined their entire life and being by their intelligence, as a Harvard professor probably does, losing their memory means losing everything. Alice knows she will forget who her children are, and who her husband is, and to prevent that, she writes herself a list of questions, like “where do you live?” and “when is your oldest daughter’s birthday?”, and she says to herself, when I cannot answer these questions anymore, I will kill myself. The novel shows Alice’s progressing deterioration by letting her answer these questions frequently, and every time she gives these answers to herself, we see that every time a small piece of information is missing, right to the point near the ending when the answers are only fragmentary or downright wrong. But when Alice tries to kill herself, she is already too far gone and just forgets before she can go through with it.
This novel is very hard to read. Not because it is overly complicated, or because its style is poor, but because you read it and you feel it, you can understand and perfectly relate to anything Alice goes through, until the ending when Alice doesn’t recognize her family anymore, gives them nicknames like “the nice man” or “the actress”. You cannot help but get involved in the story, and it hurts. If a story can achieve this, it’s fantastic. “Still Alice” is a fantastic story, brilliantly structured, well written. I’m not sure if I’ll ever read it again, but if you haven’t yet, you should do so.
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