Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

In Left Neglected, Lisa Genova once again tackles the personal impact of a difficult neurological disease head-on. (Oh, dear.  That was an entirely unintentional pun, but far too good/bad of a wordplay for me to erase.  I just don't have that kind of willpower.  Forgive me.)

A car accident leaves hard-charging, high-powered, way-too-many-irons-in-the-fire Sarah Nickerson with a traumatic brain injury that prevents her from seeing or recognizing anything on her left side, including people, objects, even her own body.  This "hemispatial left neglect" requires Sarah to participate in intense rehabilitation and also to completely reevaluate what is both possible and desirable for her life.  As in Still Alice, which dealt with Alzheimer's disease, Ms. Genova manages to keep the focus on the humanity of the affected person, as well as the effects of the injury on those who love her.

Genova paints the nuances of real relationships beautifully - between Sarah and her husband, Bob; between Sarah and her estranged mother; even between Sarah and her co-workers.  The relationship between Sarah and her three children, and Sarah's own feelings about balancing a fast-paced career with being a good parent, rang particularly true.  Sarah remarks on observing her oldest, Charlie: "He's suddenly so old and yet so young all at once.  Old enough to have homework and two adult teeth and be on a soccer team.  Young enough to want to play outside every day, to still have baby teeth and missing teeth, and to care more about spinning and catching snowflakes than winning the game."  I frequently have that sense of seeing the baby my child was and the adult he is becoming superimposed on each other and it takes my breath away.  At the risk of sounding cliche, time passes so quickly.  My eleven-year-old occasionally still holds my hand when we walk side-by-side.  I treasure each time he puts his hand in mine because, though I don't know if this one will be the last time, I know it will be soon.

Sarah's injury also gives her sympathetic insight into her son's struggles with ADHD.  Well after the accident, Charlie is having trouble with his homework and Sarah sits down to help him.  She discovers that by letting him stand up while working, he's able to stop fidgeting so much. And then by cutting the math worksheet up so only one problem is on each piece of paper, he can focus on each problem singly and solve them quickly. Simple adaptations, specific to his needs, made a huge difference.  "Our brains are wired differently, and we have to figure out how to make them work," she tells him.  Watching Charlie deal with his difficulties helps Sarah be kinder to herself.

Towards the end of the book as Sarah has made great strides in healing, but has also found that some limitations are not going away, she takes a big step and stretches herself.  While not exactly the same as before the accident, she is able to participate again in an activity she loves.  She asks herself an insightful question that many other injured people (or parents) have asked before: "Is this accommodating or failing?"  When is an accommodation helpful, even necessary, and when is it a crutch or a sign of failure?  And how do you tell the difference?  Genova doesn't answer these questions explicitly, and I suspect that there is no one universally right answer, but she allows the reader to explore the possibilities in the multitude of shades of gray that exist between black and white.

Beautiful, heart-warming book about family love and unity, core values, and overcoming challenges.


Left Neglected
by Lisa Genova
ISBN: 9781439164631
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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