If Lisa Genova's objective is to shed light, from inside the brain, on rarely looked at neurological conditions, as she did in her bestselling first novel, Still Alice, then she succeeds with Left Neglected.
The title refers to the little-known condition of left side neglect - also called hemispatial or unilateral neglect - which is a result of an injury to the right hemisphere of the brain. It can happen after a stroke, an aneurysm or traumatic head injury. A patient is entirely unable to perceive anything on the left, including her left arm, leg and facial features, to the point where she has to be reminded to look left, a task not easily achieved. It can be temporary, or it may improve in increments through rehabilitation. The title is also a metaphor for all the things that the characters in the book are forgetting about, either deliberately or inadvertently, because of the dizzying pace of their overscheduled lives.
Lisa Genova, a trained neuroscientist, once again puts her immense knowledge and fascination with the brain to good use in this story of a Type A, multitasking mother of three who has climbed the career ladder to a VP position and isn't about to hit her head on the proverbial glass ceiling. Instead, she hits it hard in a car accident on her way to work, in the driving rain, while preoccupied with her phone.
Pre-accident, Sarah Nickerson is an expert multitasker, simultaneously getting kids ready for school while texting and phoning or sending e-mails and "meeting" with her husband to co-ordinate their schedules. Pre-accident Sarah worries about seven-year-old Charlie's inattention, relies on five-year-old Lucy's free spirit to keep her occupied and seems quite often to forget about Linus, her nine-month-old baby. She fusses over the baby weight she hasn't been able to shed, the growing emotional distance from her husband, Bob, and, mostly, about making sure her professional life is flawlessly moving up.
Pre-accident Sarah has been having the strangest dreams, about her dead father and brother, who accidentally drowned as a child, and her mother, so overcome with grief that she forgot she had a second child. Genova opens each of the pre-accident chapters with a new dream, a foreboding not necessarily of the car wreck, but of its catalytic awakening.
An accident of this magnitude might cause anyone to re-evaluate, but two elements are in play here, courtesy of the creative mind of a neuroscientist. Genova wants to show readers what left neglect feels like; how a vibrant, ambitious and determined person could possibly learn to live with what others might perceive as a handicap; Sarah's stubborn reluctance to accept it, her high-achieving resolve to fight through it. She wants to show how the lives of others are affected by one person's journey through such trauma; her resilience, her difficulty. She also wants to take readers on a road of reconciliation; in this case not only with Sarah's new reality, but with her unconscious parenting, with her estranged mother and especially with her compulsion to be supermom and super-career-woman.
Over the course of reorganizing her life and learning a new normal, which includes eventually resigning from her beloved job, Sarah comes to appreciate time in a different way. Instead of squeezing the life out of it, she learns to luxuriate in its healing quality. She gets to know her children, she listens to her intuition.
By far the greatest resolution comes when she has to confront her mother, who has become her live-in caregiver. Sarah has felt a lifetime of neglect from her mom that began the day her brother Nate died; she can barely remember any sort of relationship, certainly no nurturing or motherly advice. Slowly they reveal themselves to each other and, out of proximity, necessity and understanding, they reconcile.
In the end, Sarah's life is vastly different than she had planned and, through her unyielding convincing, even Bob decides to leave the rat race, so they move to their weekend house in Vermont, where they both begin new and much more fulfilling careers.
If there's a weakness at all in Left Neglected, it's that the novel doesn't feel as vital and immediate as Still Alice, which may be attributed to the first novel having been born out of Genova's intense feelings about her grandmother's Alzheimer's. Or it could just be the usual sophomoric tendency to put your all into your first project. While the empathy she is intent on showing is never clunky, the story is a touch clichéd in places and it would be a shame in the future to see Genova err on the side of the formulaic.
Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer, TV producer and essayist for TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin.