Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lisa Genova's Best Novel Yet

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I remember reeling after finishing Lisa Genova's blockbuster, "Still Alice," feeling just so-so about "Left Neglected," and down right meh about "Love Anthony." But when I saw her latest novel just sitting there on the new book shelf crying out to me, I grabbed it up.  I will tell you, unequivocally, that it is her finest work so far.

On the outside chance that there are any readers out there who aren't yet familiar with Ms. Genova, she holds a Phd. from Harvard in neuroscience. You might think that this fact would put her in a good place to do an enormous amount of good while earning a terrific salary, but she seems to have found an even greater way to make a difference. By writing fiction about people with various misunderstood and feared neurological conditions, Ms. Genova shares her expert knowledge with masses of readers and somehow manages to take the sting out of diseases like Alzheimer's, Asperger's, and now the rare but deadly Huntington's.

"Inside the O'Briens," at times, feels to me as if it had been written by a different writer altogether. Genova is looser, more comfortable with her language yet tighter with her characterization. The O'Briens and their friends are so fully drawn, so true, that they command each page. This novel soars from the first sentence and is impossible to put down.

The O'Brien family is easy to relate to. Irish Catholic Bostonians, they live in the lower middle class section of Charlestown in a three floor row house converted into apartments. Joe, Rosie and Patrick, a grown son who can't afford to be on his own yet, share the first floor. The girls, Meghan who dances with the Boston Ballet and Katie, a yoga instructor, are up on the second floor, and Joe Jr. and his wife have the privacy of the third.

Sunday dinners are loud, boisterous free-for-alls with plenty of yelling when conversation turns to the Red Sox or politics. So when Joe begins throwing silverware, dropping cans, bottles, and vases, or spilling drinks, he gets away with calling it the stress of the job (he's a Boston city cop). Not until his best friend on the force asks him straight up if he's drinking or doing drugs does Joe realize that he needs help. After all, wasn't his own mom an alcoholic who wasted away in an institution for years?

The diagnosis of Huntington's disease is almost a relief until the full impact for his family sucker punches Joe. His entire sense of self is tied up in who he is as head of the family and as a police officer. The more Rosie learns online the more she realizes that the O'Brien family unit could unravel in the time it takes to say DNA testing.

With a 50/50 chance of inheriting the wayward gene of Huntington's, which Joe now understands he got from his unfairly maligned mother, each of the kids must decide whether to live in limbo or to learn their fate. Here is the gorgeous crux of this amazing novel. Genova goes deep into each one's disparate psyches as Joe's offspring struggle with their decisions, weigh their future possibilities and choices against the reality of now.

There is no known cure for Huntington's disease, no famous actors wearing lapel ribbons. It can surface at a relatively young age but, as it progresses and the patient loses the ability to control involuntary reflexes, he will be confined for an ungodly number of years. I appreciated that Genova wrote about a family of ordinary means, no second house to escape to when the symptoms become too obvious. The financial burden of an illness like this can be insurmountable for normal people.

If anyone is looking for a book to put forward to a discussion group, "Inside the O'Briens" would be a fantastic candidate. Moral dilemmas abound. Adults must decide if they're willing to stop the genetic bombshell from proliferating by refusing to have children. Themes of faith, prayer, hope, familial loyalty and love play out along with the more complicated issues of medical research money and where it should be applied for the greatest efficacy. There are currently "only" 37,000 people in the country with Huntington's disease, a far cry from the higher numbers for cancer and Alzheimer's. Still, if you are one of the 37,000 - well, you get it. To read more you can click here:

To read the book, run to your nearest library or bookstore. I don't usually steer you wrong, do I?

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