Friday, February 27, 2015

The Scourge of Alzheimer's Disease in Print and On the Screen

The other day I forced myself to go see the film "Still Alice." I had read and been terrified by the book when it first came out. Lesa Genova's novel about a brilliant college professor felled by early onset Alzheimer's disease was devastating to me but I wanted to see Julianne Moore's Oscar-winning performance. 

It happens that I've also been reading a gorgeously written family saga called "We Are Not Ourselves," a debut novel by a beautiful young man named Matthew Thomas. Reviews have been outstanding. Superlatives like "American classic" and "new novel of the American century," have been bandied about. But it wasn't until I visited his website today that I discovered how deeply personal this book was for him.

Set in an Irish-American enclave in Queens, Thomas follows several generations from the end of World War II, a time when the so-called American Dream was actually attainable for most immigrants, to current times when so many have found that the reality doesn't always live up to the hype.

Eileen Tumulty struggled as a kid, covering up for her mother's alcoholism while enabling her dad. The love and attention she lacked left an enormous chasm in Eileen and a yearning for a better life, education being the way up and out. And so it is that, when she meets and falls for the affable, sharp-minded college professor Ed Leary, she sees a secure future ensured.

And for many years, life is good. Ed dotes on their son Connell, born just when they had resigned themselves to a childless marriage. Eileen excels as a nursing supervisor, squirreling away every penny for the day when they can leave their duplex behind for the suburbs. But, what Thomas does so expertly, and what links this novel in my mind to "Still Alice," is slowly, inexorably open up the fissures in the family's foundation.

There's a sense of impending doom that settles on the reader early in the narrative and it doesn't let up. Which isn't to say, don't read this book. After all, most great literature goes to very dark places and it will lend itself perfectly to book discussion groups.

At 640 pages, this novel reflects an investment in time, and some critics have opined that further editing should have been done. I disagree. For a writer to truly tackle the subject of early onset Alzheimer's disease as it batters a family, day in and day out, emotionally, financially, and physically over the course of several years, takes time and patience.

"We Are Not Ourselves" is a deeply involving, extremely honest portrayal of a family that, like so many of us, just puts one foot in front of the other every day, usually doing the right thing, handling the obstacles that fate puts in the way as best they can, finding joy in small pleasures, and loving each other fiercely. Perhaps this is the true American dream.


Jessica said...

Hey - what did you think of the film? I really want to see it and love Julianne Moore, but I am almost always disappointed by the movie adaptations and you know I'm a big fan of Lisa Genova's books.

Sallyb said...

I thought it held to the book exactly. Of course, it couldn't get as in depth with the kids and the issues they all had with their mom but still, it was pretty faithful and Julianne Moore was outstanding.