"She wished she had cancer instead. She'd trade Alzheimer's for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she'd have something that she could fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she'd be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.
Alzheimer's disease was an entirely different kind of beast. There were no weapons that could slay it. Taking Aricept and Namenda felt like aiming a couple of leaky squirt guns in to the face of a blazing fire."
And there you have it in a nutshell - our protagonist, Alice Howland, professor of Cognitive Psychology at Harvard, is 50 years old when her world is rocked by the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease. It's a foregone conclusion, there is no hope so what do you do - give up? hide your head in the sand? or play it by ear, knowing that one day your own body won't remember how to swallow or even breathe unassisted?
It would have been all to easy to deliver a mawkish novel dwelling on the heartache caused by dementia or an insensitive one which focuses on the disintegration of the self as the building blocks of one's memory shatter one by one. Perhaps, the author's own experience as a neuroscientist puts her in pole position to relate the story of Alice without indulging in oversentimentality yet whilst retaining a very human touch.
This story is told in the 3rd person yet, uncannily, it feels as if Alice is standing outside herself relating events which happen to her beyond her own control. There is an underlying tension as we feel her helplessness to stop the railroad train of dementia which is crashing through both her personal and professional life. Soon she has to renounce her career as a lecturing professor and finds, not unlike some mothers who have left the workforce.., that her job defined her and without that daily work structure she feels even more lost. However, this is no temporary career break but a very real deterioration as Alice gradually loses her sense of self both in her work situation and within her family.
There are some extremely poignant scenes including one where the family discuss her future whilst she is sitting in the corner - at this stage she finds it difficult to keep up with the thread of conversations but she is dimly aware that they are talking about her and finds it impossible to verbalise her feelings about this. These and other occurences are related in such an understated, natural way that you, the reader, are chomping at the bit to speak for Alice yet all too aware that her voice has long since gone, fading like white noise in the background.
I know some folk will shy away from a book like this, thinking it's too low-brow, too calculated at pulling at the heart strings but believe me, it is so far removed from that - all of us need a reality check every now and then (some of us on a daily basis!) and if you can read this, not shed copious tears nor consider your blessings well and truly counted, then I'll stand you a quart of oil for your tin heart! Personally, I can't abide misery memoirs and Mitch Albom does nothing for me but this book touched a chord and I would highly recommend it to anyone with a pulse.