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Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Summer intern Brynn just read Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected, a very interesting book featuring a character with the rather confusing condition called Left Neglect. The brain actually fails to register the concept of ‘left,’ so the narrator is under the impression that she’s seeing everything, but actually she can’t see anything to her left. Or read the left side of a page, or sometimes the left halves of the words on it. Or find the left half of her plate, or put makeup on the left side of her face. Believe it or not, this is a real condition. It’s interesting because much of narrator Sarah’s treatment for the condition focuses on trying to make the left half of her body “noticeable” to her brain, using shiny jewelry on her wrist and hand or brightly colored socks on her left foot. Sarah’s brain just doesn’t register anything to her left as important, and redirects its attention elsewhere.

Genova treats a number of mental conditions with great sensitivity–she herself holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, and her previous book, Still Alice, also focused on a neurological condition. Because it’s so difficult to imagine missing half of your field of vision and not realizing it, Sarah’s explanations to her family help the reader to understand an almost inexplicable problem. She explains her inability to “just turn her head to the left” as her husband urges her by asking him, if she told him there was a whole half of his field of vision he was missing, “where would you look?” Her husband is stumped to answer, and this helps the reader to understand how alien the concept is. In this situation, the people surrounding Sarah act as something of an avatar for the reader. The narrative also includes several scenes from Sarah’s physical therapy, including her very realistic frustration with her progress. She also describes her internal conflict about her new identity as a disabled person, as well as her anxieties about recovery.

In addition to Left Neglect, the novel also refers to depression and ADHD. The narrator and her husband Bob are the parents of a young child being screened for ADHD, and the techniques that they use to cope with his issues were extremely realistic, being real treatments for children with ADD and ADHD. (Reading about the checklist of chores on the wall and the process of Charlie doing his homework with assistance reminded Brynn of some of the things her parents used to do for her brother, who has ADD, that she had forgotten over the years.) The narrator experiences some apprehension about giving medication to her son–he is, after all, only in the third grade–but eventually comes to accept that treatment for mental and medical conditions is completely warranted. Furthermore, Sarah’s mother Helen suffers from clinical depression triggered by the traumatic loss of a child. The narrative discusses the differences in generational mindsets about mental illness and medication—at the time that the loss occurred, there was less public understanding about mental illness, and Helen was unaware that she could seek help to cope with her grief. Her use of antidepressants is portrayed as casually as her laundry habits, and Genova ensures the reader doesn’t see it as too big a deal. Sarah’s growing acceptance of support for disability, mental illness, and neurological conditions is a great part of her character arc.

Before the character’s accident, Genova sets up a character enduring a great deal of stress while juggling motherhood and a career, as well as managing her relationships with her husband and her mother. Fans of Jodi Picoult will enjoy the portrayal of the modern working mom and the struggle to “have it all.” Also like Picoult, much of the novel’s focus is on interpersonal relationships. Sarah’s Left Neglect is a parallel to the tumultuous relationship she has with her mother, who became emotionally unavailable after her little brother drowned in a swimming pool many years ago. This is the source of the title—Sarah was “left neglected” when Helen was unable to surface from her grief.

We recommend this story to fans of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, which is her first novel (Karen also highly recommends Still Alice, by the way, and we plan on doing a review of that novel too). Also fans of Jodi Picoult will enjoy the focus on familial relationships, career women with families, and life-changing experiences. In fact, Picoult supplies the cover quote–“Remember how you couldn’t put down Still Alice? Well, clear your schedule–because you’re going to feel the same way.”