"Remember the woman you used to be ...
Alice is twenty-nine. She is whimsical, optimistic and adores sleep, chocolate, her ramshackle new house and her wonderful husband Nick. What's more, she's looking forward to the birth of the 'Sultana' - her first baby.
But now Alice has slipped and hit her head in her step-aerobics class and everyone's telling her she's misplaced the last ten years of her life.
In fact, it would seem that Alice is actually thirty-nine and now she loves schedules, expensive lingerie, caffeine and manicures. She has three children and the honeymoon is well and truly over for her and Nick. In fact, he looks at her like she's his worst enemy. What's more, her beloved sister Elisabeth isn't speaking to her either. And who is this 'Gina' everyone is so carefully trying not to mention?
Alice isn't sure that she likes life ten years on. Every photo is another memory she doesn't have and nothing makes sense. Just how much can happen in a decade? Has she really lost her lovely husband forever?" (from Goodreads)
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Alice: In a way, there are sort of three different Alices in this story. There's the Alice who's just hit her head and lost 10 years of memories, and is seeing the world through the eyes of her 29-year-old self. There's glimpses of the 39-year-old Alice that she's become in those 10 years. And then there's the "new" Alice we see at the end of the story.
I loved the 29-year-old version of Alice. She was such a fantastic character, with a wry sense of humour that, frankly, was uncannily similar to mine at times. This made for quite a funny first third of the book or so, as she reacts to all of this "new" information she's learning that she doesn't remember. And this younger version of Alice is introverted, so we had that in common as well. Even the slightly snarky, internal running commentary of her thoughts as she observes people throughout the day felt familiar — so yeah, I definitely connected with her.
In stark contrast, I strongly disliked the glimpses we're shown of the 39-year-old that Alice was before the accident. She's a sanctimonious, bitter, jaded, snooty, type-A sort of personality. To put it bluntly: she's just plain mean. I was really worried at one point that the book was going to end with Alice transformed once more into this horrible person, and I was going, "if that happens, I am going to hate the ending." I was feeling really sad and missing the younger, slightly clueless but innocent, sweet, and well-meaning 29-year-old Alice. Thankfully, though, Liane Moriarty came through for me and I actually liked how it ended. I do wish we'd been shown more of Alice becoming this final, third version of herself. Major spoilers, highlight to read: I had a little bit of difficulty seeing the two Alices merge to become one, so to speak. The Alice at the very end isn't the same as the younger Alice — she's more serious and doesn't seem to have the same sense of humor, which is a shame — but she obviously loves her kids and Nick very much. I was relieved that she and Nick end up together; their marriage is a constant work in progress but they didn't give up on each other. And it sounds like she's started to patch things up with her sister as well.
Elisabeth: Alice's sister's story is really sad because of her depressing situation of repeatedly miscarrying and not being able to carry a baby to term. It didn't make me cry or anything, but I understood how it could have contributed to a strain between the sisters; Alice has three beautiful kids and Elisabeth just wants one child, and she's despairing and beginning to lose hope. The little excerpts we're given of Elisabeth's perspective help to flesh out her nuanced thoughts and feelings on this please-let-me-have-a-baby situation, which has pretty much taken over her life.
The premise is fantastic as a way to showcase how people and their lives can change in ways they wouldn't have expected when they were younger. In Alice's case, nothing that she thought her life would be like is actually how it is ten years down the road. This is demonstrated by placing these two different versions of Alice (the 29-again Alice and the 39-year-old Alice that she discovers she's become) in stark contrast. It's a simple and yet effective way of showing that your life can turn out to be something you didn't expect, and also that you can change in ways you thought you might never change. Alice herself is quite shocked at what her life's become, now that she's looking at it through new eyes.
Stories that play with memory can either be done really well or really poorly, so I was pleased to see that What Alice Forgot falls into the first category. Moriarty seems to have a pretty strong grasp of how memory works and she uses it to great effect here. Of course, the retrograde amnesia Alice experiences is quite sweeping and severe (she can't remember anything from the past 10 years), and I'm not sure how realistic a consequence that is for the nature of Alice's injury, but that's something the reader will have to accept in order to go along with the general premise. The idea of odors evoking memories is strongly based in research and certainly rings true for me. So does the fact that Alice's body remembers to do some things that she can't retrieve from her explicit memory.
The way Alice gets her memories back at first just in bits and pieces is also very believable. Everyone expects her to get her memory back instantaneously, but anyone who's studied some psychology will know that memory is a complex, messy matter. People seem to keep blaming her because she can't remember stuff, and think that if they just talk about it a little longer she'll remember. (Nope.) I'm a little dubious about the resolution of this storyline (spoiler: many of Alice's memories flood back with a particular trigger) but I suppose it's possible — memory can't be pinned down easily and varies a lot between individuals.
I preferred the first third to the latter 2/3rds for the simple fact that I found it more humorous. As Alice starts to figure out that her life is pretty crappy — a terrible relationship with her estranged husband Nick, a strained relationship with her sister, difficulties with her daughter Madison, and friendships that have fallen apart — things got really depressing and the humor died down. Add to that the storyline involving Elisabeth, and the whole thing was feeling bleak for a while there. Thankfully, Alice manages to repair her relationships to some extent, and the mood does pick up towards the end (although the earlier humor of just-been-hit-on-the-head-Alice never resurfaces, sadly).
I would have liked a deeper examination of the sister relationship, as we don't get much discussion between them about why they drifted apart. I wish we'd seen more of them reconnecting, and not just because of how the sub-plot involving Elisabeth is resolved (spoiler: the miracle baby — which I thought was a little too HEA, but I was still glad for Elisabeth and I liked that she ended up adopting as well), but because it was an important step in their relationship. I also didn't really care much about the storyline involving Frannie. Generally, though, I really enjoyed the family dynamics and psychology that What Alice Forgot delves into.
I don't have anything specific to say about the writing style — just that through both humorous sections and depressing ones, the quality of writing is consistently excellent.
Final verdict: 4.5 shooting stars. It's unusual for me to connect with a book about a 39-year-old, but in the case of What Alice Forgot, I could! I didn't have too much trouble even in the latter stages where she takes on the more mature role of actually being a 39-year-old. I feel like the author really understands human nature and how relationships can deteriorate. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It reminded me of the TV shows Samantha Who? and, in a more abstract, conceptual way, Being Erica (most of my readers probably won't be familiar with that one, but it was an awesome Canadian TV series!)
This book counts toward my goal for the TBR Pile reading challenge.