Left Neglected: a novel
Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, 2011)
How does Sarah Nickerson do it? The heroine and narrator of Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected is a modern-day Superwoman. She combines a home in a nice Boston West suburb, a husband, and three small children, with an overwhelmingly demanding job in human resource management at a global consulting company. Her cell phone, her laptop, a nanny (who worked 55-hour weeks till the older children started school) and a giant mountain of debt are all necessary parts of the answer.
It’s a normal life for an ambitious Harvard Business School graduate, and it’s more than a little insane. “I go to Europe once every eight weeks, China once a quarter, and New York for one or two overnights a month, but this kind of travel is all predictable, finite, and manageable.” Manageable. Right. But add to that a broken garage door opener, and a meeting with seven-year-old Charlie’s teacher, strongly hinting that he be tested for an attention deficit problem, and it’s All a Bit Much.
Then Sarah makes the way her life is spinning out of control unexpectedly concrete, by flipping her car in the median of the Mass Pike, and sustaining a traumatic injury to the right side of her brain. She can still talk, because that’s a left-brain function, but she loses all awareness of the left side of anything, including herself. The way the book handles her discovery of this strangeness is marvelously subtle, as is the way that she comes to terms with the fact that her life as an HR VP is not going to be recoverable.
The lightly fictionalized Baldwin Rehabilitation Hospital captivated me in particular, as I’ve done visitor time there--not just the jail on one side, and the beautiful bridge on the other, but the nightly sounds of confusion and suffering; and what the nurses say when you get out of bed and fall down because you don’t really understand that you can’t walk; and how rehab lasts only as long as insurance will pay for it, under criteria established by the kind of person Sarah used to be.
Sarah gathers some of what she knows about her situation from the faces of those who come to see her. Her boss and her assistant come over to the hospital: “The incision scars, the bruising, the overall baldness. I’m a horror movie, and she desperately wants to bury her face in someone’s shoulder.” Why is this woman who looks like a train wreck claiming she could work from her hospital bed? Inevitably, mercifully, her boss’s phone rings, and the visit is cut short.
Having her mother turn up to help is a bit of a shock for Sarah. How can someone who hasn’t driven off of Cape Cod in decades navigate into the darkest heart of Boston traffic, in her son-in-law’s car, after taking the kids to school? “I feel like I missed a meeting,” says Sarah, because she’s had no significant relationship with her mother, Helen, in thirty years. She needs one now, though, and one of Left Neglected’s sweet pleasures is seeing Sarah as both mother and daughter, especially as she has to negotiate both a new connection with her mother, and an new separation. Can Sarah stand her mother’s taste in clothers? Is it cheating if Helen pushes Sarah’s wheelchair down to the gym for therapy? Part of the work is figuring out when to accept help, and when to fight through without it.
Where is fighting going to get her, anyway? The old, competitive straight-A Sarah can’t control how fast her recovery happens, if it happens at all. Her old wardrobe of professional clothing (“Armani, Donna Karan, Grettacole, Ann Taylor”) has buttons on all the blouses, which makes them highly impractical for someone with only one useable hand. “Accept. Adjust. Those words don’t sing to me at all. In fact, I have a hard time even considering those words without hearing Give up. Lose. Fail.”
Well, by this point we know that Sarah is not going to give up, or fail, but her life and her family’s are irrevocably changed. In addition to a handful of very interesting neurological conundrums, Left Neglected brings us the kind of Easter story novels can be very good at. We all need to know what Sarah learns: “Maybe success can be something else, and maybe there’s another way to get there. Maybe there’s a different road for me with a more reasonable speed limit.”
Email edition, February 1 2013