“They make a fine pair. As they lurch down the hallway and and finally make it to the kitchen, it occurs to Joe that this is the best anyone can hope for in life. Someone you love to stagger through the hard times with.”
Author: Lisa Genova Published: 2015 Pages: 343
If you’ve read Still Alice and loved it, then this one is for you. Inside the O’Briens follows the journey of Joe O’Brien, an ordinary Irish-American man who receives the devastating news that he has Huntington’s disease. As we are told on the first page of the novel, “it has been called the cruellest disease known to man.” Genova allows the reader to dive headfirst into the story of Joe and his family, and their struggle with the catastrophic news. Not only has Joe been told he has HD, but each of his four children have a 50/50 chance of developing it too. Meghan is a dancer, Katie a yoga teacher and JJ is trying to have a baby, and while the fourth child, Patrick, doesn’t rely so much on his physical health, Joe prays the disease ends with his own diagnosis. All of them get the choice to find out whether they carry the gene and therefore will be burdened with the disease when they are older. But making the choice to know is an agonising decision.
The perspective switches between Joe and his daughter Katie; from his point of view, HD is jeopardising everything he loves in life, including his job as a Boston cop. But from her point of view, she sees her father slowly succumbing to the fatal disease, a disease which she may have herself.
I read the novel absorbed by Genova’s writing, and while it could be argued that the arch of the story is formulaic and predictable, especially if you’ve read any of her other novels, the predictability of it, for me, only made Joe’s diagnosis more devastating. When I bought the book, I knew what it was going to entail, and in the first few chapters, there are little signs that are obviously symptoms of the disease. But because the reader is already aware of what the story is about, it makes you focus on the little details in the book, things that might be overlooked otherwise. The relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter and best friends are catapulted to the forefront and serve as a reminder of what’s really important. Her writing is impeccable and eloquent and serves as a dignified portrayal of the people that suffer with HD.
I loved the ordinariness of the book; Genova doesn’t try to pretend that any of her characters are saints or martyrs, they’re all just normal people, trying to get on with life. Her kitchen-sink descriptions of Sunday family dinners and sibling squabbles serve as a painful reminder of the reality of HD. It could happen to anyone.
The beauty of Inside the O’Briens, which applies to Still Alice as well, is the uplifting hope it provides. Although the tone throughout is melancholy, because of the nature of its subject, Genova is able to tell Joe’s story in a way that restores faith into the ability for humans to be kind and inspiring. Yes, this is a story about a cruel disease which has no mercy for its victims. But Genova makes it so much more than that. She makes it a story about a family and their strength to overcome the hell life throws at them, and for that, I commend her.