Monday, April 6, 2015

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

When Joe O’Brien, a 44-year-old Boston cop, starts falling, fidgeting, dropping objects, having muscle spasms, experiencing memory loss, and throwing things during his increasing bouts of temper, his wife Rosie insists that he see a doctor and his diagnosis is devastating.  He has Huntington’s disease, a fatal disease with no cure. Far worse than the diagnosis is the knowledge that each of their children has a 50-50 chance of having the disease that could lie dormant in them.

The O’Briens live in Charlestown, a Boston Irish Catholic enclave. They own and share a three-story apartment building with their grown children.  J.J., a firefighter, and his wife live on the second floor. Daughter Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, lives with her sister Katie, a yoga instructor, on the top floor and Joe and Rosie share the first floor apartment with their bartender son Patrick.  Nothing has ever mattered to Rosie other than her faith and keeping her family close to her in Charlestown.

Once their children know of Joe’s diagnosis, they have to decide if they should take the test and find out if they will or won’t get the disease. As these young adults ponder the lives ahead of them, the novel kicks into high gear as it explores what it means to live in doubt, fear, and uncertainty. As Joe states, “Once you can imagine these things, you can’t unimagine them.”

As the practicalities of the disease's ravages begin and Joe and Rosie must face his probable early retirement and the costs of his inevitable care, each of the six family members react differently and it’s their personalities and reactions that make this book so powerful. When one of the children is found to carry the gene, Katie can’t decide whether to take the test. She contemplates whether it’s worse to be positive and face an incurable disease or to be negative while knowing that your beloved sibling is positive. She’s in love and the possibility of the disease hovers over all her decisions about her relationship. Katie is so different from the dreams her parents have for her. Her mindfulness as a yoga instructor has been her core belief, but that was before her father’s diagnosis. Seeing the dynamics of their decisions primarily through the lenses of Katie and her very different parents, makes this book ring true.

Surprisingly, this is a joyful book, a novel that makes you think about living that one life you’ve been given to the fullest. Humor, love, and honesty make this book both a page-turner and an upbeat read.

As Joe’s illness progresses, and he begins to contemplate the worst, Katie tells him “You’re avoiding a future that hasn’t happened yet.” She and the rest of the family have to learn how not to use the disease as an excuse to limit their lives.

Summing it Up: Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist and author who is best known for her novel Still Alice about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t like Still Alice as I found the characters unrealistic and the novel too reliant on emotional appeal so I was pleasantly surprised with Inside the O’Briens. The well-developed, genuine characters, the keen insight into the working of the brain, and an emotional resonance that rings true made Inside the O’Briens a winner. I particularly applaud O’Brien for her development of exceptional minor characters including great medical personnel.  Eric, the genetic counselor, is such a compelling character. I want to read a sequel featuring his life and how he handles his vocation.

This novel will, as one of Katie’s aphorisms states, make you realize that “Every breath is a risk.  Love is why we breathe.”  Read this novel for an emotional roller coaster of a ride alongside a family that learns to live life and love each other. My only quibble with the book is with Genova’s heavy hand as a cheerleader in the fight against Huntington’s.  It’s hard to argue against Genova’s compassionate search for a cure, but the book suffers slightly because of it.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: April 7, 2015
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review. I agree with your comment that this book reminds us to "think about living that one life you’ve been given to the fullest." Love that!!! I didn't enjoy this book as much as others by Genova, but it was a good read and educated me a little more about Huntington's.