LEFT neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster)
In an interview with Jennifer Northcutt, a buyer for Borders bookstores, neurologist Lisa Genova says an anecdote about left-side neglect in a book she read years ago by neurology and psychiatry professor Oliver Sacks piqued her curiosity. She knew the clinical manifestations of a right-hemisphere brain injury, but wondered how one could possibly cope with such a condition.
The result of that curiosity is Sarah Nickerson, 37, protagonist of LEFT neglected. Sarah is the hard-charging, Harvard MBA-toting vice president of a Boston consulting firm who can’t recall the last time she had sex with her husband, Bob, but does keep track of her wins when they play Rocks, Paper, Scissors to see who gets stuck taking their three kids to school/daycare before work on Fridays. Sarah’s hyper-drive lifestyle downshifts abruptly when an auto accident (she’s looking for a number on her cell phone) leaves her with a traumatic brain injury.
Left-side neglect is an intriguing condition. Asked to draw a clock, a patient will only draw the noon-through-six side. Food on the left side of her plate will go unseen. She knows that she has a left leg, but her brain is unable to find it or control it, making walking impossible.
Genova tells Sarah’s story in the first person, which lets the reader in on her unvarnished thought process as she comes to grip with maddening limitations. Sarah retains her intellect and her competitiveness, which she and Bob assume will drive her to regain everything she’s lost. She is blunt and funny, and her pity parties are few and brief. Oddly enough, however, it is Sarah’s relationship with her long-absent mother that truly humanizes her. When mother shows up at Sarah’s hospital bedside, Sarah openly hates her. The reason, which resurfaces slowly, rescues Sarah from superwoman flatness and makes her a compelling and sympathetic character. The evolution of the mother-daughter relationship colors the novel with poignancy and grace.
Genova’s writing is inventive. She shows the stress of Sarah’s pre-accident life in the clack-clack-clack cadence of Sarah’s four-inch, Christian Louboutin heels and deftly contrasts it post-accident in Sarah’s cane-step-drag-breathe pattern of learning to walk again.
As a neurologist, Genova is well acquainted with the pathology of brain afflictions. Her first novel, Still Alice, is about Alzheimer’s. It was a New York Times bestseller, and odds are good that LEFT neglected will be, too. Highly recommended.
By Kimberly Caldwell Steffen. This is a “second look” review. LEFT neglected was released on January 4, 2011.