Friday, January 22, 2016

Lisa Genova's Inside the O'Briens: Well-Written Fiction that Teaches Something Important Too

Over the last couple of years, I've been researching the benefits of reading literary fiction. Studies I've found show links between fiction and empathy, fiction and critical thinking. Although it's rarely mentioned in the research though, fiction is an excellent vehicle to inform. I remember reading that before she began writing novels, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about science, the environment, and other scientific and political issues important to her. Who's going to read a book about saving the environment? People who already care about the environment. Through fiction, though, we walk in the shoes of people who do care and along the way, we learn. Sometimes we even learn to care.

Like most readers I know, I would be unlikely to read a book (or even a magazine article) about a disease with which I had no connection.  But I've already read two other novels by Lisa Genova, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard in neuroscience: Still Alice and Left Neglected, learning about early-onset Alzheimer's and brain injury. Reading her latest novel, Inside the O'Briens, I was introduced to Joe O'Brien, a 44-year-old Boston cop, an Irish Catholic father whose four grown children live under his roof.

At the prompting of friends on the force noticing some physical traits, his wife insists he go for a physical, where they learn he has Huntington's disease, a hereditary condition affecting about 37,000 people in the U.S.--about the number that would fit in the Red Sox stadium. That's a number far smaller than cancer or Alzheimer's, so the incentive to find a cure--or even an effective treatment isn't great.

But, as the O'Briens learn, Joe's children have a fifty-fifty chance of inheriting the genetic markers that inevitably lead to this debilitating disease and early death, and those who do inherit the trait have the same odds of passing the disease to their own children.

Genova sometimes shifts the perspective from Joe to his younger daughter Katie, a 21-year-old yoga teacher living in the shadow of her sister, a ballet dancer. Katie has a new boyfriend Felix who is the opposite of what her parents--especially her mother--want her to marry: He's black, protestant, and worst of all--a New York Yankees fan.

While the subject matter might seem too dark and depressing to keep readers interested, it's just the opposite. Genova so clearly communicates Joe's frustration with his inability to control his body and Katie's fear for siblings and her reluctance to find the answer to her own genetic testing so she can move forward. In the most moving scene, she lets her father know that in handling his situation, he is teaching his children how to die--and how to live.

The close-up view of the life of a Boston policeman, especially after the marathon bombing, is fascinating. Katie's yoga practice, which she shares with her sister and father, also adds another interesting dynamic to the story. Throughout the narrative, too, the family's faith is tested as they must decide between blacks, whites, and grays. Genova leaves readers with characters who weather disease, live with their flaws, but mainly who love. She may, along the way, increase interest in this disease in need of a cure.


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