“She liked being reminded of butterflies. She remembered being six or seven and crying over the fates of the butterflies in her yard after learning that they lived for only a few days. Her mother had comforted her and told her not to be sad for the butterflies, that just because their lives were short didn’t mean they were tragic. Watching them flying in the warm sun among the daisies in their garden, her mother had said to her, see, they have a beautiful life. Alice liked remembering that.”
From the outset, it is undeniable the passion that Alice Howland exhibits for her work. For all intents and purposes it consumes her and has become her identity, but the reader begins to wonder about her personal life at home? In her family life away from the office there is a coldness, a pronounced tension between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia that is not felt with her other children. Her oldest daughter Anne went to law school where she now works in a Massachusetts law firm with her husband Charlie. Anne works within the intellectual property field while Charlie works in litigation. Alice’s older son Tom is in medical school where he is studying to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. Lydia, Alice’s youngest child has turned to a life of least resistance by taking a year to travel after high school and spending the next three years “working” as an actress in Los Angeles. To earn a consistent income Lydia works as a barista at Starbucks and as a waitress in a restaurant on the weekend. Alice would like her to take a more traditional approach to life by getting a higher education and insuring her future, while her husband John is supportive of Lydia by backchannelling and providing funding for her acting education. As great as the disconnect between mother and daughter may be, the one that has the potential to pose the biggest problem is the one between husband and wife.
“She wished Lydia could see the love and wisdom in what she wanted for her. She wished she could just reach across the table and hug her daughter, but there were too many dishes, glasses, and years of distance between them.”
At eighteen Alice lost her mother and sister in a drunk driving accident. After a few days her father couldn’t handle the tension and abandoned her, leaving Alice with no family to rely on from that tragic day on. Later on Alice found out that her father died from cirrhosis of the liver at seventy-one, he was already an afterthought at that point but he may have been a vital source of information for her as she began her own battles. Alice made it through university, graduations, a marriage, pregnancies, job promotions, and great success all on her own without any guidance from parents, or family. To say Alice had a toughness, a resolve, a determination would be an understatement, and she will need these key qualities as she embarks on one of her toughest and most personal challenges yet.
One of my favourite moments in the book was how in spite of their previous differences Lydia and Alice were able to come together as a result of Alice’s disease. Together they began the formation of a new relationship without the limitations that strained them previously. Knowing that her mother would be irrevocably changed Lydia didn’t make a big deal of her mother’s conditions, or even overreact to potentially hurtful experiences. Lydia avoided her own selfishness and tried to accommodate her mother and make her as comfortable with the disease as possible. To Lydia it brought a feeling back and a level of humanity to a mother that became lost in her work and had repressed her ability to truly love unconditionally.
“She felt victorious and a little smug. The fact that she had Alzheimer’s didn’t mean that she was no longer capable of thinking analytically. The fact that she had Alzheimer’s didn’t mean that she didn’t deserve to sit in that room among them. The fact that she had Alzheimer’s didn’t mean that she no longer deserved to be heard.”
This book reminded me of another book I recently read called We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. The main difference with Still Alice was that the protagonist’s struggle starts from the beginning of the book and ends with the last page. Positioning the reader so they are thrust into Mrs.Howland’s world from the first word on. In the other book you are given an expansive generational tale of families and immigration leading to the point of diagnosis. Some of the similarities were striking in that the two afflicted characters were quite young at the time of diagnosis, they are both intellectuals studied the neurosciences with great passion, and their partners had to put their own ambitions on hold while being a caretaker for their loved ones. I really enjoyed this book as it provided many talking points for my brother and I as our mother gets older. Like most sons and daughters it’s hard to imagine a parent mentally or physically changing before your eyes. Images become shattered and a new reality begins. This book forced me to grow up a little and think on some important things and I am grateful to have read it. This book is highly recommended to all.
“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”
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