Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova
Published by Gallery Books ISBN 9781476717791
Trade paperback, $16, 368 pages
Author Lisa Genova’s debut novel, “Still Alice” described the devastating effects of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease on the lives of a Harvard professor and her family. It is an emotional, heartbreaking book, and the movie version won an Oscar for Best Actress for Julienne Moore for her brilliant performance last year.
Genova followed up her success with two other novels- “Left Neglected” about a stressed mom who suffers a traumatic brain injury, and “Love Anthony” about a young boy with autism. Genova excels at putting the reader square in the shoes of people who have to live with a tragic health issue, getting us to feel their pain and be amazed at their strength and resolve.
Her latest novel, “Inside the O’Briens”, tackles a deadly disease that many people have never heard of- Huntington’s Disease. Huntington’s is a neurodegenerative disease that causes a person to lose control of movements, speech, and eventually the ability to eat. There is no cure or treatment for it.
One of the most devastating aspects of Huntington’s is that the children of a person with Huntington’s each have a 50% chance of contracting the disease as well. That means that entire families have been destroyed by Huntington’s, and the decision about finding out whether one has the Huntington’s gene is uppermost in the mind of anyone with the disease in their family.
Genova introduces us to the Irish Catholic O’Brien family. Patriarch Joe is a 44 year-old proud Boston city cop. He and his wife Rosie own a large three story home and have four adult children- son JJ and his wife Colleen live on the second floor, daughters Katie and Meghan share the third floor apartment, and son Patrick lives with Joe and Rosie on the first floor.
JJ is a fireman, Meghan is studying to be a professional ballerina, Katie is a yoga instructor and Patrick is a troubled bartender who drinks too much. They are a close family, some would say a little too close and too involved in each other’s lives.
Joe lost his mother as a young child, he was told she died due to alcoholism. The truth was that she had Huntington’s Disease, and when he starts to exhibit symptoms that he can no longer ignore, he sees a neurologist who gives him the bad news.
Joe and Rosie are stunned by the diagnosis, and when they find that their children each have a 50% chance of having the Huntington’s gene, it is almost too much for them to bear. Joe feels guilty for bringing this on his family, and Rosie is afraid she will have to watch her entire family die a horrible, painful death. She even begins to question her strong religious beliefs.
Genova drops us into the O’Brien’s lives, and we watch as each of the children must struggle with the decision to get tested for the gene. If they have the gene, they will eventually get Huntington’s, typically within ten years, and they will die from it.
You can’t help wondering as you read this, what would I do? Do I live my life not knowing, just going on as usual? Or, do I get the test and go from there? If I’m married, do I have children, knowing that if I do have it, they could get it too?
Telling this story through the O’Brien family, and that proud, strong Joe is the one who will die from it, is a powerful choice. Joe has always been the strong family leader, and now he will need someone to care for him. Watching him come to terms with his new life is emotional.
The story is told from Joe and daughter Katie’s points of view, and we watch as young Katie must struggle with a decision to get tested or not. She has a new relationship with a great guy, and she must decide whether to pursue it and go for happiness or live with doubt.
We watch Joe work to stay as healthy as he can, becoming increasingly frustrated with his new limitations and his role in the family. This is a loving, close family, and many readers will understand the family dynamics here, especially the sibling relationships.
“Inside the O’Briens” is, like “Still Alice”, an emotional ride of a book, and just like real life, there aren’t always clearcut answers.