While she was being “wildly irresponsible”—writing her first novel, Still Alice, instead of going back to work at a high-powered Boston consultancy firm—Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, decided, what the heck, she might as well take acting lessons too.
“I was a divorced single mother at the time,” Genova says during a call to her home on Cape Cod. “I wasn’t doing anything I was supposed to be doing, and I had always wanted to act.” So for a year and a half Genova trained as an actress. “One of the things I learned,” she says, “is that you always raise the stakes as high as possible whenever possible.”
It’s a lesson Genova seems to have applied in much of her creative life. When Still Alice wasn’t picked up by a publisher, for example, she decided in 2007 to self-publish the novel, which offers a moving depiction of the life of Alice Howland, a Harvard professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “It was self-published for 10 months and in that time I sold just over 1,000 copies, and I was really, really proud of that,” Genova says, laughing. “Then it was bought by Simon & Schuster, and Barnes & Noble sold more copies than that on the first day it was released!”
The popularity of Still Alice allowed Genova to become an Alzheimer’s advocate and to write full time. When she began to develop the character of Sarah Nickerson, the high-achieving, 30-something narrator of her new novel Left Neglected, Genova says she was inspired first by her curiosity about an unusual condition called Left Neglect Syndrome and then by her concern about the crazy-busy lives so many Americans lead these days.
“Most women who are raising kids and who have to work are finding themselves doing way too much in a day,” Genova says. “In fact, it’s sort of a badge of honor to say that you’re really, really busy. So I could have given Sarah a normal job but I thought, raise the stakes as high as possible whenever possible, and I decided to give her a really crazy job. I wanted to make her exhaustion and level of multitasking pretty severe. I wanted readers to see that there are so many things she’s not paying attention to in her own life. She’s not paying attention to her distant relationship with her mother because it’s easier not to look at that. She’s ignoring the fact that she and her husband haven’t had sex in a while. She’s ignoring the elliptical machine in the basement and the fact that she’s 20 pounds overweight. And she’s not paying attention to the road because she’s on her cell phone.”
Left Neglected tells of Sarah’s attempt to recover from that moment of inattention on the road and to learn to live with Left Neglect Syndrome. “It’s a confusing condition to wrap your brain around,” Genova says. She first read about it in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and the disorder would crop up in her neuroscience classes at Harvard. Left Neglect is a condition in which trauma to the right side of the brain results in a person not being able to recognize left-side space. “If you ask a patient with it to draw a clock,” Genova explains, “they would draw the numbers 12 through 6 and think they had drawn the whole clock. I’m like, wait a minute, how does this person walk through the world if they’re only recognizing half of it? I knew that if I got to write another novel, I wanted to write about someone with this condition.”
One of the great accomplishments of Left Neglected is how fully Genova allows a reader to inhabit Sarah’s experiences of this peculiar disorder. Those experiences are often frustrating, but they are also laced with humor. “I didn’t know Sarah would unfold that way,” Genova says. “I haven’t written humor before, but there’s a lot of physical comedy in the book, and that was fun to see evolve.”
But Genova also has a larger purpose in mind in writing Left Neglected.
“I wanted to use this condition as a metaphor for our crazy lives as a culture right now,” she says. “It’s one of the things I have wrestled with in my life. In my 20s, I was very driven to succeed, like Sarah. I had my head down barreling a thousand miles an hour toward what was an outwardly, visibly successful life. A Ph.D. in neuroscience, a job that was very, very well paid. I had a sort of laundry list of things I would have: I would get married, I would have kids, I would do it all, without really thinking about what I wanted my life to look like. Then when I was 33, I got divorced. That sort of shook things up. It was devastating on the one hand, and on the other hand it gave me an opportunity to stop and think about what I wanted.”
In Left Neglected, Sarah Nickerson quite literally crashes and is then forced to rebuild her life. She struggles with her disorder and she struggles to reconnect with her mother, her husband and her children and to discover how to lead a meaningful life without the preconceived standards of success.
In Genova’s own life, she metaphorically crashed after her divorce and “began choosing a simpler life.” In 2007 she married photographer and filmmaker Christopher Seufert and moved to the Cape, where the family lives in a house overlooking a saltwater creek. She writes at Starbucks most mornings and attends her 10-year-old daughter’s soccer and softball games in the afternoons. She is now the author of two novels and the mother of two more children—a two-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter.
“That’s right!” Genova says, laughing, “I delivered a baby and a book this year. It was a little crazy.”