Neuroscientist and bestselling novelist, Lisa Genova, has a knack for writing about medical dramas in a way that draws you deep into the characters’ lives and makes you care about them.
This talent, first on display in her brilliant debut, Still Alice, since made into a hit movie, is on show again in Genova’s fifth and latest novel, Every Note Played. The story of a celebrated concert pianist struck down in his prime, it blends fascinating medical detail (she doesn’t pull any punches) with the deeply human story of the lives and relationships drawn into its force field, like a rose unfolding in a bramble patch.
Anyone who’s ever had to confront the drama of major illness, will find a lot to relate to in this terrific book. The way normal life comes to a complete halt. The need to set up a support network. Having to deal with family politics and siblings – estranged or not. The need to say things that may have never been said out loud before. The reckoning that comes with a medical crisis. It’s all there in Every Note Played.
Thankfully, while love and resentment and other emotions swirl about whirlpool-like, there’s not a whiff of sentimentality. Every Note Played is the opposite: clear-eyed, honest, never shying away from the heavy lifting required to look after a loved one or from the failings of its characters, but you understand them. Most charming is hired carer Bill, who is an absolute darling.
Richard is 45 and at the peak of a brilliant career when he is cruelly diagnosed with ASL, or, Motor Neurone as you might know it better. He’s a genius musician, arrogant and self-absorbed. Driven by his passion and soaring talent, he’s sacrificed his family for his career, choosing the adulation of thousands over the love of a few. At the time of diagnosis, he has been divorced for three years.
People usually die from Motor Neurone within 3-5 years of being diagnosed (Stephen Hawking was an exception. Former Australian AFL star, Neil Daniher, is another high-profile sufferer who has shone a light on the debilitating condition). With Richard, the first symptoms show up in his hands and arms, meaning the first thing he loses is his first true and probably greatest, love – the ability to play the piano.
Once she has witnessed Richard’s declining condition and understood he is unable to live by himself any longer, Karina, Richard’s ex, makes the extraordinary decision to become his carer, albeit reluctantly, and he moves back into the marital home.
Karina is stuck in an unfulfilling life as a music teacher. She too showed great promise as a talented young pianist but lost herself and her dreams along the way, blaming motherhood and her marriage. Besides, with Richard sucking up all the oxygen, there was only ever room for one star in the family.
Gradually, as the medical crisis grows, the lives of Richard and Karina and their relationship, from red hot young love to two people relieved to be rid of one another, unfolds. We learn about their families, their backgrounds, their mistakes and their deceptions – of both self and others. Not everything is as it appears. Richard regrets the way his career shut down his wife’s and the way he allowed it to alienate their daughter, Grace.
Karina couldn’t bear even the thought of being separated from Grace when she was young, of ‘missing any milestone… of this enormous, precious love, this gift.’ Whereas Richard was always away touring, just like his own distant father. Has he done irreparable damage to his relationship with his daughter whom, despite appearances, he truly loves?
There’s a lot for this family to come to terms with and in a strange way, illness becomes a gift, a path to redemption by giving everyone in the family the opportunity to dispense with blame and the need to be right, to own up to mistakes, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.
That way, comes love.
It’s hard to believe that Lisa Genova had to self-publish Still Alice, the debut that turned into global hit and then sell it out of the boot of her car. ‘Surreal,’ is how the author described to USA Today, her dizzying success from such humble beginnings.
Acclaimed as the Oliver Sacks of fiction and the Michael Crichton of brain science, Lisa Genova other books include Left Neglected, Love Anthony, and Inside the O’Briens. Still Alice was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart. Lisa graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. She travels worldwide speaking about the neurological diseases she writes about and has appeared on The Dr. OzShow, Today, PBS NewsHour, CNN, and NPR. Her TED talk, What You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer’s, has been viewed over 2 million times.
Interesting footnote: Every Note Played partly owes its origins to Still Alice. Richard Glatzer, co-writer and director of the cinema version of Still Alice, was suffering from Motor Neurone during the making of the movie.