Halfway through her life, a savvy, driven, successful family woman comes up against an impossible hurdle that forces her to rethink every way she has defined herself. Who am I if I don't have these touchstones? Who am I if I don't have my memories? What happens if I can't hold onto my achievements and place in the world?
Millions of readers know this as the fundamental challenge for Lisa Genova's Alzheimer's-afflicted heroine in the bestselling novel Still Alice
, which has more than 500,000 copies in print and was a breakout title across many retail channels. Millions more will soon discover similar neurologically based questions of identity and self-integrity at the core of her new novel, Left Neglected
. And Genova is well aware that in many ways this narrative parallels the arc of her own life as a high-powered business woman who took a few wrong turns before taking a new road into the next phase of her life.
"It's incredibly fair to say my first life was a lot like Sarah Nickerson's [in Left Neglected
] in that I had imagined it long ago and decided this is what's going to happen," she said. "I went along with my head down going 1,000 miles an hour, but I wasn't checking in with myself or seeing if it was something I really wanted."
In Left Neglected
, Sarah Nickerson's high-powered life comes to a screeching halt when she crashes her car while fiddling with her cell phone. She wakes in the hospital with a brain injury that results in a rare condition known as left-side neglected. Sarah cannot see anything placed on her left side--not her children, her husband, her mother or the food on her plate. The life only half-lived and half-seen becomes embodied in Sarah's illness.
"Before she has this neurological condition she's already not paying attention to half of her life anyway," Genova said. "I've talked to a lot of writers over the past couple of years and what becomes apparent is whatever you're writing about, you're kind of writing about yourself."
A high achiever who doesn't define herself that way ("I enjoy learning so I guess I'm kind of a nerd"), Genova was valedictorian of her public high school class, valedictorian at Bates College, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and once held a high-salaried, high-pressure job as a Boston strategy consultant--the same job Sarah Nickerson holds.
In 2000, Genova went on maternity leave with her first child, and her marriage began to unravel. Meanwhile the author's beloved grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and was rapidly deteriorating. As a neuroscientist, Genova understood the disease on a molecular and physiological level, but as a granddaughter she felt devastated and helpless. "All the stuff I could read in the neuroscience world didn't explain what was going on with this woman who I loved."
Genova told a colleague that someday she'd like to write a novel that imagined the disintegrating interior life of an Alzheimer's sufferer. When her divorce was finalized in 2004, she reassessed her future and began the novel. It took a year and a half to complete Still Alice
--a time she recalls as hopeful and romantic, when every day was one of creative exploration and personal discovery.
"Getting a divorce is pretty life-changing," she said. "I could have gone into the abyss of it, but in the end I'm really proud of the fact that I decided I'm still young and healthy and I'm ready to get back into things."
When she was unable to find an agent or a publisher for the book so dear to her heart, Genova was daunted but unbowed. She set up a website, self-published Still Alice
in 2007, sold the novel out of her car and rustled up some impressive publicity that took her to the front page of the New York Times
. By May 2008, she had signed with literary agent Vicky Bijur, and within days Bijur sold Still Alice
to Simon & Schuster's Kathy Sagan at auction for $500,000. The life Genova thought was broken had given way to something richer, saner and more satisfying.
"Both books are absolutely books about the self," she said. "Sarah's living a life to prove herself and prove her worth and to have something visible to point to show she's here and she matters and she's important. Through her condition she moves to the conclusion that she doesn't need all of that stuff to be important and to matter, and she has a chance to decide 'What do I want to do and what do I want to be and what is the life I want to have?' "
Today Genova is the mother of a one-month-old baby girl, two-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. She lives on Cape Cod with her second husband, an independent photographer and documentary filmmaker, and her days are a colorful patchwork of writing and family. The rich tumult of a carefully juggled domestic life is beautifully realized in Left Neglected
, as are the strains of a working mother with too much on her plate and too little time.
"That was the easiest part for me to write because I'm living it," Genova said with an easy laugh. "The craziest part of my day is trying to squeeze in the writing and professional life. I'm breast-feeding my baby now, I get that world and I know how insane it is."
Women who do too much; women who can't focus on what's most important to them; women who face the terror of disappearing inside their own minds: these are issues and topics Genova is eager to discuss. What Still Alice
did for Alzheimer's, Genova hopes Left Neglected
will do for left-side neglected: bring awareness and open conversation to a misunderstood condition veiled in mystery and fear.
But the conversation needn't stop there. Oprah, if you're listening, Genova and her "big, loud, extended Italian family" want you to know it's here--a book that takes the dangers of texting and talking on the cell phone while driving and turns it into a heart-wrenching journey toward self-discovery.
"While I was writing Left Neglected
," Genova said, "I'd see Oprah's campaign against using cell phones in your car and I'd be yelling at the TV--'have me on your show, Oprah, have me on your show!' This is a timely issue."--Laurie Lico Albanese