Last spring, when I traveled to Boston to attend the Muse writer’s conference, I sat in on a class taught by a panel by four authors, on research for fiction. One of the panelists, Lisa Genova, talked about the research she’d done for her first book, Still Alice, by interviewing hundreds of early-onset Alzheimer’s patients. After the class, I bought Still Alice at the conference bookstore. Once I read it, I knew I’d found one of my favorite contemporary authors.
A few months ago, when Genova’s latest book, Inside the O’Briens appeared on bookstore shelves, I bought it and saved it for a time when I could read the compelling story uninterrupted. I’m glad I did, because it was impossible to put down.
In Inside the O’Briens, Genova writes about another genetic disorder, Huntington’s disease. In the same manner of Still Alice, Inside the O’Briens introduces us to the affected person before he understands what is happening, as well as to his family. This is the part of Genova’s writing that I enjoy the most: the characters and their close-knit families.
In Inside the O’Briens, we meet the main character, Joe, in one memorable episode of rage, and then seven years later as he walks his dog around the neighborhood. By about the fifth page, I felt Joe’s confusion as if it were my own. He doesn’t understand why or how he fell while walking down the sidewalk—he’s a Boston police officer, after all. But it’s in the small moments that Genova adds up the symptoms and signs of what’s changing within Joe, as well as the added reflections and story told from those in his family, that makes the book so powerful.
It’s impossible not to feel for the characters. For example, read one excerpt from Joe’s daughter, Katie:
“Walking with her dad is stressful. The whole reason she drives the car to pick him up from physical therapy is to avoid walking with him. But who can resist this day?
She wants to be close enough to catch him if he starts to fall, but not close enough to catch a flying fist in the face…he’s frightening to watch. Every joint—his ankles, knees, hips, elbows, wrists, fingers, shoulders—is overly involved in the task. Each step is exaggerated, jerky, wild, almost violent. She finds herself holding her breath …”
By the end of the book, I felt as if I were a part of the O’Brien family, and held my breath along with them. How can a family endure such a diagnosis, especially one which is genetic and almost certainly will affect one or more of Joe’s children directly, too? But as is true with Genova’s other writing, her characters find their way forward not unrealistically, but learning how to adapt and face one of life’s cruelest possible diagnoses.
This is the triumph of Inside the O’Briens, the story’s ability to show the human side which is raw and fragile and mired in despair, yet somehow balanced with hope, with learning to live and support each other through whatever life brings.
This is the importance of literature, learning to see life through others’ eyes, and to allow ourselves to be changed for the better by what we’ve learned.
Have you read Inside the O’Briens or another of Lisa Genova’s works? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!