I added Lisa Genova’s Still Alice to my TBR list last year, but didn’t read it until a few weeks ago. My free Oyster trial gave me the nudge I needed to read it now instead of someday.
I was hesitant to read this novel, which has been described as uncannily realistic: the novel tells the story of Alice Howland, a 50-year-old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Because of my family’s history with Alzheimer’s disease, I was afraid it would hit too close to home and be horribly depressing.
Still Alice wasn’t depressing. Terrifying, yes, but not depressing, and surprisingly beautiful. In fact, the book ends on a hopeful note.
But there’s controversy surrounding that hopeful ending.
The story begins with the book’s path to publication. Still Alice almost didn’t get published. Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, was advised not to write the novel at all, or at least not to publish it. Her colleagues said writing fiction would be career suicide.
Genova completed her novel anyway, then spent a year shopping it to literary agents and editors, who all told her it wouldn’t sell. She didn’t believe them: she self-published Still Alice in 2007, and set out to find her market.
Genova was inspired to write Still Alice because of her grandmother’s experience with Alzheimer’s; she was convinced the story would resonate with the millions touched by the disease. She reached out to the National Alzheimer’s Association, who loved it, endorsed it, shared it on their website, and asked Genova to blog for them. In the meantime, Lisa started her own blog and took to social media.
Lisa Genova and Julianne Moore at the Sony Pictures Classics dinner the night before the Oscars (photo source)
The book sold. Not even a year later, Genova signed with Simon and Schuster. The book was released on January 6, 2009, with an initial print run of 250,000 copies. (That’s a lot.) In 2014, the book became a major motion picture; Julianne Moore just won an Oscar for her portrayal of Alice.
The book was ready to go; Genova had been selling her self-published edition for over a year. But before she inked her deal, Genova was asked to do one thing: write a new ending.
(If you want to remain 100% spoiler-free, stop right here—though it’s not much of a spoiler, given the topic.)
In the self-published edition, the book ends with John in the coffee shop. Before I signed with my literary agent, she asked me to write a new ending. I wrote what is now the epilogue, and I love it. I’m so grateful she asked me to do this, and the book got this sort of second chance at having the right ending.
Readers vehemently disagree about which is the “right” ending. Some prefer the original ending with John sitting in the coffee shop, tears running down his face as he reads about the failed trial of Alice’s Alzheimer’s medication. They claim the new, hopeful ending is false: she shouldn’t have been asked to inject hope into a hopeless disease.
Some prefer the revised ending, as I do. I don’t think it’s false: I’m reminded again of The Geography of Memory, whose opening line is “I wrote this book because I believe the news about Alzheimer’s is more hopeful than what we hear on the street.”
Make no mistake: Still Alice is devastating. But Genova’s epilogue—a mere 1200 words or so—gently altered the novel’s portrayal of Alice’s quality of life, and shifted its themes from from despair to love.
Some readers applaud the shift. Some readers still think it’s a mistake.
Now you know the story: decide for yourself.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially if you’ve read Still Alice.
A big tip of the hat to Heatherly, whose comments sent me down this rabbit trail.
Books mentioned in this post:
This is one of my '7 books that will make you a better human'. Oliver Sacks wrote, "In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life." That's what Genova offers in this uncannily realistic novel about Alice Howland, a 50-year-old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The story resonates with the millions touched by the disease, and nurtures empathy in those who are fortunate to have no firsthand experience with it.
From New York Times bestselling author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova comes the definitive—and illuminating—novel about Alzheimer’s disease. Now a major motion picture starring Oscar winner Julianne Moore! Look for Lisa Genova’s latest novel Inside the O’Briens.
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. As she struggles to cope with Alzheimer’s, she learns that her worth is comprised of far more than her ability to remember.
At once beautiful and terrifying, Still Alice is a moving and vivid depiction of life with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that is as compelling as A Beautiful Mind and as unforgettable as Ordinary People.