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Lisa Genova is an American author and a graduate from Harvard University with a PHD in neuroscience. She's already written one best-selling book, 'Still Alice' which is about a 50-year-old woman's descent into Alzheimer's disease. Her second novel, Left Neglected has another neurological disorder as part of the book's theme, but this is not the only level to read it on, it works on so many other levels that just about anyone can relate in some ways to the story and the characters Genova writes about. I picked it to read because the front page has an endorsement by writer Jodi Picoult a woman I think highly of as an author and a person who has so many insights into human nature. I'm so glad that I did.
Sarah Nickerson is a successful woman with a brilliant career, a loving family and three children, two houses and all the money she needs but neither she or her husband, Bob, have time to enjoy life, snatching brief moments together and with their children. Sarah is aware that she's juggling too many things at once, but it takes just a split second driving to work to become distracted and a devastating accident occurs. Waking up in a hospital bed she's aware that something has happened to her but she's going to need every ounce of courage, patience and determination to get back the life she wants, but even if she can, will it be the life she needs?
I could leave the plot at that and hope a little about my own reading experience will persuade you that this is worth reading, but sometimes a book is so good that you ache to share it with someone so a very small spoiler won't change much, since the main part of the book is about a family's journey out of misery into a hopeful future. For Bob, Sarah's husband it's about keeping the financial side of life together, for Charlie, aged 7, Lucy 5 and baby Linus, just nine months old, it's getting on with life without their mother to help them.
For Sarah it's a nightmare. During the accident she sustained brain injury that has a very unusual and devastating effect. For her the left side of her body doesn't exist. It's a hard condition to explain, let alone understand, but although she isn't paralyzed or has visual damage, her brain cannot conceive of a 'left side' to anything. The prognosis is poor. Few people ever totally recover and of those that do life will always be difficult and slow. For someone like Sarah who is used to life in the fast lane, she will fight the very people who are trying to help her.
Thoughts on the storyline.
Having allowed a spoiler I'm not going to give away much more, since the book is about Sarah mostly and her struggles to recover some use of her body. Whether she will and how much is down to her character and that will also curb a lot of my normal analysis of a book. I found the title so appropriate because there are so many ways you could take the wording. The terminology of the condition is called Left Neglect and is something not known to laymen. When Sarah is busy juggling her job, her traveling time, meals and bedtime with the children she isn't neglecting them, but neglecting herself and her own needs.
This is something that working men and women can identify with and I couldn't believe how closely this families pre-accident lifestyle was to my own daughter and son-in-law who both work full-time and have just a few hours together in the evening to eat, read a bedtime story to Jack and have an hour or so before bedtimes to do paperwork, housework and catch up on paying bills etc.
Sarah and Bob took turns taking the children to school and picking them up with the aid of a child-minder. For so many couples in today's society this is the only way they can beat the recession and get one step on the housing ladder, let alone have a stable lifestyle. After Sarah's accident Bob has to juggle work, the children and his wife, Bob relies on Sarah's mother, a woman with her own problems to overcome. So the story draws so much more together under one heading.
For me the neurological damage has poignancy because it relates to a condition I have myself, only mine is a problem with balance and is due to an area of leaky cells in my brain. Reading about Sarah's struggle to come to terms with her life-changing but not fatal condition had me in tears of sympathy. I imagine there will be other readers nodding their heads because they too have illnesses that rob them of some parts of life.
Whether it's the chronic fatigue caused by ME & MS, there are other people who probably have been forced into coping with a different lifestyle and it isn't easy trying to change your personality to deal with huge lifestyle changes. My way is using all kinds of walking aids and balancing the things I need to do with how much energy I can allow in one day. I mention this as an example of the tremendous amount of research the author did into this condition, talking to hundreds of people to see how it affected them and then using that knowledge to write a believable book that doesn't beg for the reader to say 'how sad' and then decide it's only a story. The condition exists and affects people in many ways.
The story is beautifully written without moralizing or casting blame on the people who decide they want a career and a family. It's a choice we all make and there is no right or wrong unless it's willful neglect. However, the author uses parts of the story to show how families can balance a career and spend time together.
I did identify with Sarah as I'd been a single parent for all of my daughter's life and worked with the support of my mother. Sarah is a strong character who dearly loves her husband and children but feels she will be less of a person if she doesn't work. It's an attitude that is personal to her but sets back her recovery a great deal. From my own experience I wanted to tell her to bend a bit, instead of fighting things, and that shows how well the author portrays her character as she draws you into egging the character on.
I loved all the children who each had a unique character that gave the book such a lovely balance and highlighted the way children are resilient but also respond to being 'let in' on things. Charlie has some behavioral issues that actually help Sarah with her recovery. I can't spoil it by adding more. Sarah's mother is a superb character with plenty of failings but lots of patience, she sometimes gets things wrong but you still adore her. Bob is not a typical stereotype male and only gets annoying when he makes decisions for Sarah, instead of consulting.
Of course the support staff, the doctors, nurses, physios, volunteers and anyone who pitches in to push Sarah when needed and a shoulder to cry on at other times should get more than a quick mention. I imagine the author has drawn from real life with these and used a lot of her own experience. You will find yourself reading this and urging Sarah on with her recovery and then feel so happy with her small gains.
This is a book that's best discovered for yourself and doesn't read like anything I've come across before. It's not one of those books where you expect to be saddened, or feel sorry because the author has written it that way. Rather, she shows us a character that's based on real people facing an almost impossible situation; throw in some ordinary family squabbles and allows us to make up our own mind.
I guarantee that you will read this and want to discuss it with your husband, best friend, mum, or anyone else who is near to you. It will also make you stop and think, 'what if this happened to me?' If that allows you to stand back and take a breather or simply stop feeling guilty because you are a working parent and love it, then the author has succeeded in what she has set out to do. There is nothing preachy about it and it never descends to bathos to get you involved.
There are dozens of plaudits for this book. 'Devastating and hopeful, haunting and familiar' 'By turns chilling and moving, Left Neglected is a stunning reminder that a single moment can change a life.'
For me it was a reminder that my daughter didn't suffer because I worked, that she is grateful I can help her at times, that children belong with happy parents and that love really does conquer most things and mountains can be made into hills. This is a thinking person's book with a unique story and sharp, effective prose. One to read if one is all you read this year.
Thanks for reading my review and I do hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.
Mine was a library book, paperback and not too long at 400 pages. It retails at £7.99 and is available on Amazon for £4.26 new.
©Lisa Fuller. 2011.