Left Neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books; $25.00; 336 pages)
“I think some small part of me knew that I was living an unsustainable life. Every now and then it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down. You don’t need all of this. You can’t continue like this.”
Once upon a time, a 37-year-old woman named Sarah Nickerson was a successful and driven executive working in New York City. Not a moment was ever wasted, even while driving her automobile. Work, work, work was going to result in Sarah’s having a perfect life…
“Ever since business school, I’ve had my head down, barreling a thousand miles an hour, wearing the flesh of each day down to the bone, pointed down one road toward a single goal. A successful life.”
Except that one day Sarah was rushing down a freeway when she turned her attention away from the road for a couple of seconds too long. Her car went over a guard rail, turned over and over, and she barely escaped with her life. Just like that, she had brain damage, resulting in a condition that would not permit her to see things with her left eye. This accident also left her with basic paralysis on the left side of her body. In theory, her left eye still worked perfectly fine but her brain had lost the ability to process its signals and, therefore, the left side of her life disappeared. This condition is known by many names but is often referred to – ironically – as “left neglected.”
Lisa Genova, a former neuroscientist and nurse, applies her medical knowledge just as tactfully and effectively as she did in her earlier self-published New York Times Bestseller, Still Alice (about an Alzheimer’s patient). Genova writes with such precise focus and detail that the reader believes he or she has become Sarah Nickerson, and battles her physical and mental conditions right along with her. Sarah is nothing if not a fighter, a very stubborn one. She plans to beat this thing, and quickly:
“Thank God I’m a competitive, Type A perfectionist. I’m going to be the best traumatic brain injury patient Baldwin has ever seen… they won’t be seeing me for long because I… plan to recover faster than anyone would predict. I wonder what the record is?”
Like the journalist Nan Robertson in the recovery memoir Getting Better, Sarah decides she’s going to scam the medical establishment if it kills her, and it almost does. She won’t give in and she certainly won’t back down. However, she soon becomes exhausted trying to get a broken-down mind and body to work again and even begins to lose track of the days of the week: “It’s the beginning of March, and I’ve been out of work for four months now.”
Eventually she views herself as fully recovering and re-entering the workforce for, after all, she’s Sarah Nickerson… But what if she can’t beat this thing?
“I have no interest in accepting or accommodating. I have a brain injury that has not healed and no promise that it ever will. I used to have a full and successful life. Now what do I have?”
Well, Sarah has a son with his own medical issues who seems to need her, and a husband who would love to support her, but also loves the idea of her someday bringing in a paycheck again. Just when they need the “old Sarah” back, she begins to realize the value of taking a time-out from the whirl of Manhattan life and living: “I didn’t dream of having a brain injury in order to have the chance to sit and think… That’s kind of a hard price to pay for a little R&R…” But since she’s paid the price, she just might decide to take advantage of it.
The joyful part of this read is seeing how Sarah finds a new way of living that makes her whole, at least in terms of her spirit and soul. She gets to see that life can be experienced without Gantt charts and due dates; without people needing her every second of the night and day. It may have taken a brain injury, but our protagonist Sarah becomes a person who learns to live and love life without hesitation.
Who would have thought it? Sarah Nickerson, a woman bathed in Gratitude.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
“Remember how you couldn’t put down Still Alice? Well, clear your schedule – because you’re going to feel the same way.” Jodi Picoult