Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
There are not many women who have the joint title of novelist-neuroscientist. I should add Harvard grad. Lisa Genova is one. If her name is familiar to you, it may be because she is the author of the novel Still Alice which was made into a movie starring Julianne Moore who received the best actress Academy Award in 2015. Still Alice is the fictional story of a Harvard professor who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s and was inspired by Genova’s grandmother’s affliction with the disease.
In Left Neglected, Genova once again puts her knowledge and training as a neuroscientist to use in a fictional tale of one woman’s brain injury, how she comes to grips with her limitations, and maps out a new life for herself that is perhaps better than the one she had prior.
Sarah Nickerson is a 37-year old career-driven supermom who works 80 hours a week in a high-powered job. The demands and high pressures are what she loves. She and her husband Bob, along with a nanny for the three children, live in an affluent suburb of Boston where their life is hectic but seemingly charmed. Sarah manages every minute of her life like an air traffic controller until her multi-tasking throws her life into a free fall. While trying to make a phone call on a rainy morning commute, she looks away from the road one second too long. Like the sound of tires trying unsuccessfully to stop in time, her life, as she knows it also comes to a screeching halt.
A traumatic brain injury complete erases the left side of Sarah’s world. If the author’s intent is to shed light, from inside the brain, on rarely looked at neurological conditions, she succeeds with Left Neglected. The title refers to a little-known condition of left side neglect, also called hemispatial or unilateral neglect. It is the result of an injury to the right hemisphere of the brain and can occur after an aneurysm or traumatic brain injury. It can be temporary or it may improve in increments through rehabilitation. Now Sarah, the successful, competent high achiever, is entirely unable to perceive anything on the left, including her left arm, leg and facial features, to a point where she has to be reminded to look left, not a task easily achieved.
One review says the title is also a metaphor for all the things Sarah may have neglected --either inadvertently or deliberately—because of the intense and rapid pace of her overscheduled life.
So begins a new life for Sarah and those around her and as the reader we are taken on this painful road of recovery with her. She cannot dress herself, walk without a cane, make sense of a newspaper article or trust herself to make a trip to the ladies’ room alone. Her husband has to supervise her when she brushes her teeth as he does for their three children because her brain does not register the left side of her mouth. However, Sarah has a stubborn reluctance to accept her limitations and she applies the same high-achieving resolve once given to her career to re-gaining her independence. She prides herself on being competitive and vows to “recover faster than anyone would ever predict”. She tries to ignore the voice in her head which asks, “What happens if I don’t get better?”
The surrounding cast, her husband Bob, her therapist, and her mother, who becomes her care-giver at home once she is out of re-hab, are supportive and interesting characters. There is also a sub-plot of a reconciliation with her mother who has not been present in her life until now. She uses this time with Sarah to make up for the many times she was not present but should have been. There is also a new awareness on Sarah’s part of her son’s attention deficit disorder which was diagnosed shortly after her accident. She is now able to sympathize with him in a way she could not have before.
Although all of the above seems depressing and the very thought of such an injury is truly frightening and disturbing, Sarah’s journey and the realizations she makes about life by the end of the story are truly uplifting. I won’t give any plot spoilers but I was inspired by the turn of events.
If you like Ms. Genova’s writing, her other fictional titles also put her PhD in neuroscience to good use. Love Anthony is a story of autism, Inside the O’Briens is the story of a Boston cop who suffers from Huntington’s disease. Her books have been described as heart-wrenching with large doses of hope. It would seem that hope is often the best prescription a patient can have.