A few years ago, I read a novel that was heartbreaking but brutally honest about a very real thing. That novel was Still Alice by Lisa Genova. If you haven’t read it or seen the recent film, Still Alice is about a woman who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it tells her story as she falls deeper and deeper into it, and it describes the impact Alzheimer’s has on her as well as those around her. I’ve since read Genova’s other novels and Inside the O’Briens is her most recent. I saw it at Chapters and had to read it despite a stack of unread books at home.
Inside the O’Briens is the story of an Irish-American family in Boston. Joe is the husband and father of the O’Brien family and a Boston Police officer. He begins acting strangely at home and on the job and is eventually convinced to go to the doctor. No one in the family is prepared to learn that Joe has Huntington’s disease. What makes it even worse is that each of his and Rosie’s four adult children has a 50 percent chance of getting the genetic disease.
The story is told from two character’s perspectives. Joe, who is grappling with what the disease is doing to him and how it’s impacting his family and Katie, his youngest daughter. Katie is in her early twenties and you see how she watches the disease impact Joe and the family. She also reveals her own feelings about potentially having the disease and how she questions whether she should go through genetic testing that will tell her if she will get Huntington’s. She’s at the very start of her adult life and offers such a unique perspective.
The story is not completely full of despair as you might imagine. It’s definitely a sad story but there are still hopeful moments. There is fear on many levels throughout the book but you also see how much they love each other and how important the bonds of a family are. And ultimately, you see how the disease impacts their choices in life – and not always in a negative way.
I enjoy reading Genova’s work because she tells such interesting stories, providing factual information in a caring way. She’s explain this intent in a letter at the end of book:
“Through the story of the O’Brien family, I hope you’ve gained a compassionate awareness for what it feels like to live with Huntington’s.” (Genova, 337)
She does just that, providing a look into a family who is impacted by such a terrible disease but through the story, also teaches about the importance of family and the people that make up one’s life. That is where I found hope in this story.