ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Genova not to be neglected

Book columnist Heather Allen from Penticton looks at the work of Lisa Genova.

Writing this column, I’m lucky to have many people stop and chat with me about books. By far the most recommended read is Still Alice by Lisa Genova. In fact, while selecting eggs at the grocery store, a reader held onto my cart until she had finished her passionate praise for the book.

The reader wasn’t impressed when I told her that while Still Alice sounded great, I was reluctant to delve into the subject matter — a woman’s rapid descent into early onset Alzheimer’s. When Genova released her second novel, Left Neglected, I wasn’t much tempted to read it either.  Genova, who has a PhD from Harvard in neuroscience, had again decided to fictionalize brain malfunction.

However, because readers were still stopping me and praising Genova’s superlative writing powers, I vowed to make my way through Left Neglected. Thank goodness I finally listened. Left Neglected is the amazing story of a high-powered career woman and mother, who while talking on the phone gets in a horrific car accident. Sarah Nickerson’s skull is caved in so that she sustains brain damage to her right hemisphere.

This damage creates a bizarre condition — Sarah no longer recognizes anything on the left side of her body. She doesn’t know she has a left hand, arm, foot. She doesn’t know anything exists on the left side of a room. She doesn’t see anything placed on the left side of her plate. Even though she remembers the concept of left and right, when reminded to look left, she can’t find it. Sarah spends months in the hospital trying to relocate left, and learning to re-navigate the world without being aware of left. It is, understandably, a difficult time. She wonders how her husband, her family and co-workers will think of her now that she has this handicap. She wonders if she will ever work again. And, if she doesn’t, how will she pay for all of her ongoing care?

Surprisingly, this is more a fascinating than depressing read. With her great imagination and character sensitivity, Genova is able to show readers exactly what it would be like to live with brain malfunction. It’s a treat to be in the hands of someone so knowledgeable about the human brain, and aside from a few clichés, to be in the hands a great storyteller.

I was so impressed by Left Neglected, I will go back and give Still Alice a try. Genova has a brand new novel about autism coming out this fall called Love Anthony. She is currently working on a fourth book. I plan to read them all. Otherwise, I’ll count on you to remind me!

Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.

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