Monday, November 19, 2018

Book Review: "Every Note Played" by Lisa Genova

When I read Lisa Genova's Still Alice nine years ago, I remember how much it wrecked me emotionally. I was on a business trip and remember sitting on the bed in my hotel room, sobbing, as I finished Genova's story of a woman fighting through Alzheimer's disease.

Perhaps it was the memory of the sniveling mess I was that kept me from picking up any of Genova's other books, but enough time had elapsed, so I decided to read her newest book, Every Note Played. Once again, she balances her knowledge of neuroscience with her immense creativity and empathy to create a memorable story of someone struggling with a neurological disorder, and how their struggle affects those around them.

Richard is a famed pianist, traveling the world and performing for crowds to great acclaim. It is the piano first and foremost for him—which posed a challenge to his marriage and his relationship with his daughter, who is now in college. But although he's mostly alone, that doesn't faze him, since anything is essentially a distraction from his music.

"Maybe human beings are capable of only so much passion. The pie has only so many pieces. For Richard, all but a sliver is devoted to piano. He loves women, appreciates them as much as any man, but ultimately they find themselves achingly hungry with him. And he refuses to feed them. His artistry for playing piano seduces them. His lack of artistry as a man is why they leave."

When his right hand starts disobeying him, not hitting the right notes, or taking too much time to move from note to note, he gets a horrible diagnosis: ALS. While the realization that he probably won't make it until his 50th birthday, and the fact that he'll be fully dependent on people for the most basic activities not too long from now is overwhelming, knowing his days at the piano are limited may be the toughest cut of all. Before long, his right arm becomes paralyzed, quickly followed by his left.

As the disease quickly runs its course and leaves him weaker and at risk of death with every day, he knows there will come a time in the not-too-immediate future that he'll need round-the-clock care. His ex-wife Karina agrees to take care of Richard and let him move back in to their old house, even though she's still angry with him for many things that occurred during her marriage, from infidelity to her being forced to abandon her own musical dreams so he could pursue his.

"Richard always seemed invincible to Karina, as if he could conquer anything, and he did. He was an unstoppable force that awed and intimidated her and, at times when she was most vulnerable, trampled her. Now he's the vulnerable one, and she can't help but wonder what it would feel like to sit at the other end of the table."

In Every Note Played, Genova follows Richard's decline and his coming to terms with his imminent demise, as well as how Karina and their daughter Grace deal with his illness. Beyond the disease, however, Genova looks at the years of resentment, anger, betrayal, and regret that Karina felt regarding her relationship with Richard, as well as his feelings about her. The book is full of things both characters want to say to each other but are afraid to, and how the way we navigate relationships is often shaped by our earlier relationships.

As you might imagine, this is an emotional read, full of realistic detail about the physical toll that ALS takes on a person, as well as all of the possible side-effects that treatments cause. As difficult as reading about the physical challenges is, reading about how what it's like to come to terms with the fact that you're going to die much sooner than you thought, with things remaining unsaid.

The one challenge I had with the book was that while I certainly felt sympathy for Richard, he was far from a sympathetic character, and I had difficulty feeling much sympathy for Karina because she seemed fairly detached at times. Regardless, this was a tremendously well-told, emotional story that will stick with me for some time.

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