Lisa Genova is perhaps best known as being the author of Still Alice, the film adaptation of which saw Julianne Moore take home the award for Best Actress at this years Oscars. I’m yet to read Still Alice, which I hear is very good, but sometimes when books have this much hype surrounding them I like to wait a while before I read them, and hopefully be able to push all the chatter about them to the back of my mind. But I thought I’d get in on the ground floor for her latest novel, Inside the O’Briens, and I was lucky enough to get approved for an advance copy to read. I had a suspicion before I began reading that I would enjoy this book – and I did. What I didn’t expect was how attached I would become to the characters, and how emotionally invested I would be in their story (yes there were tears; they may or may not have happened on the train).
A Boston police officer in his mid-forties, Joe O’Brien is a loving husband, and father to four grown children. Despite the long and at times stressful hours of his job, Joe leads a happy life and one that is relatively average. But the normalcy of his life is disrupted when he begins to experience outbursts of anger which are completely out of character for him, involuntary movements of his body, and a disordering of a mind that is usually anything but. At first he blames the stress of his job on these unusual symptoms, but as they steadily worsen and become more noticeable, he agrees to see a doctor and eventually finds himself in the office of a neurologist. It is in this office that Joe’s world is shattered as he is diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disease with no cure and one which will cause Joe’s once strong body to wither away to nothing in perhaps a matter of ten years.
But even worse in Joe’s eyes, is the news that the disease is hereditary and each of his children have a fifty percent chance of carrying the disease. All it takes for them to find out is one blood test. Through the eyes of Joe’s youngest child, Katie, we see that the decision to get this test is not an easy one to make. While knowing has the advantage of preparing her for the future, it also brings with it the knowledge that her life will be drastically shortened. As Joe’s condition worsens, we see the impact it has on every aspect of his life – his family, his friends, his job, and most notably himself. And as Katie struggles with the decision to learn her fate or not, we see just how much this disease influences a person’s future, regardless of whether they have it or not.
A neurologist herself, Genova knows what she’s talking about in regards to Huntington’s. For me it was interesting to learn more about a disease I’d heard of, but didn’t really know anything about. Genova is not shy about showing the impact of the disease in all its horrible glory, but despite this, it is not a depressing book to read. Yes there are some sad points, but there is also joy – just as there is in the life of any family. The book had me questioning myself about what I would do if I were in Joe’s situation, and there are instances throughout in which Genova touches on some somewhat controversial topics, but does so with care and I felt that as a reader I was allowed to ponder them, rather than feeling like I was being forced into forming an opinion. The disease obviously features prominently throughout the book, but so does family and Genova does a particularly good job of creating a family that isn’t perfect, and showing the day to day struggles every family goes through. For me it made the story more real and relatable, and the family acts as the perfect vessel for educating the reader on Huntington’s and just how devastating it can be.
In a sentence, Inside the O’Briens is about life: what you do with it, who you share it with, and how you leave it. I loved this book and was wholly unprepared for the wonderfully resilient character of Joe O’Brien. In the opening chapters I was unsure what to make of him, but just as you gradually get to know a person in real life, so too do you gradually get to know Joe and he genuinely touches your heart. He is a normal guy with a normal life who by unhappy chance finds himself with a horribly debilitating disease. This for me was the most affecting thing about Inside the O’Briens – that this man could be a person who you see every day. It’s not often that I continue thinking about a book for days after I finish reading it. But I have this time and I suspect I’ll continue to think about it for a long time to come. If that was Lisa Genova’s goal, then she has definitely accomplished it.
Many thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for an honest review!