November 2, 2010
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
2011 Gallery Books
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
ARC - On sale January 4, 2011
FTC Disclosure: Received ARC from Jean Anne Rose, Director of Publicity, Gallery Books
In an instant, life can change forever.
Sarah Nickerson is a high-powered working mom with too much on her plate and too little time. One day, racing to work and trying to make a phone call, she looks away from the road for one second too long. In the blink of an eye, all the rapidly moving parts of her over-scheduled life come to a screeching halt. A traumatic brain injury completely erases the left side of her world. As she struggles to recover, she discovers she must embrace a simpler life, and in so doing begins to heal the things she's left neglected in herself, her family, and the world around her.
She's done it again! Lisa Genova has written a compelling novel that reads like a memoir, pulling me in from the opening paragraph, and making me long for a back-list of titles to enjoy until her next publication. Reading all but the final chapters in-flight to California earlier this month, the narrative taut with suspense, I found myself on the verge of hyperventilating as the impending disaster drew nearer. It would have been easy enough to finish the book as my plane taxied to the gate, but I wanted to savor those final pages in a more peaceful environment.
My book is littered with over two dozen sticky-notes and as I began to read each marked passage in preparation of writing this review, I found myself reading several pages at a time, losing myself all over again in Lisa's prose.
I think some small part of me knew I was living an unsustainable life. Every now and then, it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down. You don't need all this. You can't continue like this. But the rest of me, powerful, smart, and determined to achieve, achieve, achieve, wasn't hearing a word of it. If, once in a while these kinds of thoughts did manage to wiggle into my consciousness, I shushed them, scolded them, and sent them to their room. Quiet, little voice, can't you see I have a million things to do?
Genova (who has a degree in Biopsychology and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard) adroitly continues to educate her readers as she did with her amazing debut work, Still Alice. And yet her creativity as a novelist is equally as impressive as her scientific expertise. I love her use of dreams, so imaginative and detailed, as a means to begin each chapter in the first half of the novel.
Even my dreams began tapping me on the shoulder, trying to grab my attention. Do you even know what you're doing? Let me show you. But each dream was elusive upon waking, and like a slimy fish captured in my bare hands, it slipped out and swam away before I could get a good look at it. Strange that I remember them all now. In the nights just before the accident, I think my dreams were trying to wake me up. With all that has happened, I honestly believe that they were guidance sent from a spiritual source. Messages from God. And I ignored them. I guess I needed something less fleeting and more concrete.
Like a traumatic smack to the head.
Much like a few of my favorite authors (Marisa de los Santos and Erica Bauermeister, to name just a couple), Genova deftly explores the ordinariness of everyday life and marriage.
We kiss good-bye. It's our typical morning good-bye kiss. A quick peck. A well-intentioned habit. I look down and notice Lucy's round, blue eyes paying close attention. I flash to studying my own parents kissing when I was little. They kissed each other hello and good-bye and good night like I would have kissed one of my aunts, and it terribly disappointed me. There was no drama to it at all. I promised myself that when I got married someday, I would have kisses that meant something. Kisses that would make me weak in the knees. Kisses that would embarrass the kids. Kisses like Han Solo kissing Princess Leia. I never saw my father kiss my mother like that. What was the point of it? I never got it.
Now I get it. We aren't living in some George Lucas block-buster adventure. Our morning kiss good-bye isn't romantic, and it certainly isn't sexual. It's a routine kiss, but I'm glad we do it. It does mean something. It's enough. And it's all we have time for.
Until reading Left Neglected, I had never heard of this condition. From the publisher, "Left Neglect Syndrome, also known as Hemispatial Neglect, is a neuropsychological condition that can result from damage to the right hemisphere of the brain. In these cases, the patient experiences a deficit in attention and fails to recognize the left side of the body and space. The patient is unaware of stimuli on the left side and unable to recognize the significance or importance of the stimuli. This is not a visual problem." In spite of this clear explanation, I still found it difficult to wrap my brain around the specific condition until Genova put me in Sarah's shoes:
"She doesn't seem to notice that it's missing," says Bob.
"Yes, that's true for most patients in the acute phase immediately following the injury. She's mostly unaware of her unawareness. She's not aware that the left side of everything is missing. To her, it's all there, and everything is normal."
I may be unaware of some unawareness, but Dr. Kwon and Bob seem unaware that I'm still here.
"Do you know you have a left hand?" Bob asks me.
"Of course I know I have a left hand," I say, embarrassed that he keeps asking these ridiculous questions.
But then I consider this ridiculous question. Where is my left hand? I have no idea. Oh my God, where is my left hand? How about my left foot? That's also missing. I wiggle my right toes. I try to send the same message to my left food, but my brain returns it to sender. Sorry, no such address.
"Bob, I know I have a left hand, but I have no idea where it is."
and then in Bob's:
"Yes, you can. It's simple."
"I don't understand why you can't just turn your head."
"To the left."
"There is no left."
I hear him sigh in frustration.
"Honey, tell me everything you see in here," I say.
"You, the bed, the window, the chair, the table, the flowers, the cards, the pictures of me and the kids, the bathroom, the door, the television.
"Is that everything?"
"Okay, now what if I told you that everything you see is only half of everything that's really here? What if I told you to turn your head and look at the other half? Where would you look?"
He doesn't say anything. I wait. I imagine Bob standing in his tee-shirt and jeans, searching.
"I don't know," he says.
One of the reasons I love Genova's novels is that I see parts of myself in her main characters. Losing myself in the narrative, my head bobbing in agreement, I recognize situations and emotions much like my own:
And there's something magical about the combination of mountain air and physical exercise that interrupts that endlessly looping and insistent voice inside my head that normally chatters on and on about all the things I need to do. Even though it's completely irrelevant now, I can still hear the nagging list that was playing in my head just before the accident.
You need to call Harvard before noon, you need to start year-end performance reviews, you need to finalize the B-school training program for science associates, you need to call the landscaper, you need to email the London office, you need to return the overdue library books, you need to return the pants that don't fit Charlie to the Gap, you need to pick up formula for Linus, you need to pick up the dry cleaning, you need to pick up dinner, you need to make a dentist appointment for Lucy about her tooth, you need to make a dermatologist appointment for you about that mole, you need to go to the bank, you need to pay the bills, don't forget to call Harvard before noon, email the London office...
And my experience with meditation is much like that of Sarah's:
Meditation has been added to the list of rehabilitation techniques that may or may not help me return to my old life. So I meditate. Well, I try. I've never had any inclination to meditate, and even beyond that really, I can't imagine why anyone would want to. To me, meditation sounds a whole lot like doing nothing. I don't do nothing. I pack every second of every day with something that can get done. Have five minutes? Send an email. Read the school notices. Throw in a load of laundry. Play peek-a-boo with Linus. Got ten? Return a phone call. Outline the agenda for a meeting. Read a performance evaluation. Read a book to Lucy. Sit with my eyes closed and breathe without planning, organizing, or accomplishing anything? I don't think so.
Still Alice was one of my top ten reads in 2009. Reading like a memoir and putting a face on Alzheimer's, it quickly became a favorite among book clubs across the country. I predict Left Neglected will be do just the same. Laced with humor and not quite as emotionally terrifying as Still Alice, Genova takes another medical condition and reveals the humanity that lies beneath the normally cold, clinical, disinterested account of that condition. I can't wait for the release of this amazing book so I can start discussing it with other readers.
Life can change in an instant. No one lives in a bubble, but we can take measures to protect ourselves (and loved ones) from traumatic brain injuries. Wear helmets while riding bikes and motorcycles. Don't text and drive. For that matter, don't talk on a cell phone while driving (hands-free or not). Keep your eyes on the road. Pay attention. Because we all know there are those who don't.
Final thoughts: Another winner! This will be the book club darling of 2011.
Note to Lisa: Many thanks for another great book. More, please!!