Inside the O'Briens

By Lisa Genova
New York : Gallery Books, 2015
ISBN 978-1-4767-1777-7

Reviewed by Renette Davis

This is a very good book about a policeman who happens to have Huntington's Disease (HD). Joe O'Brien is a tough Irish Boston cop and did not know that HD was in his family. His petite wife, Rosie, is a devout Catholic who puts her family first, insisting on them all being together for Sunday dinners. They live in a 3-flat with 23-year-old son, Patrick, on the same floor as his parents, another son, JJ, and his wife, Colleen, on the second floor, and two daughters, Katie and Meghan, on the third floor.

When Joe starts having problems with his temper at home, and with his balance and report writing at work, Rosie insists that he go see the doctor. He agrees, just to make her feel better, but he believes that it is just stress and a bad knee. When the doctor asks about Joe's mother, he shares that she was an alcoholic but as he says that, he realizes that she wouldn't have been able to get alcohol in the state hospital, where she was for the last five years before her death. When the doctor asks what she looked like when he went to visit her, he remembers that "her legs and arms and face are writhing into disturbing, inhuman shapes."

I knew at this point that the author, Lisa Genova, really knows what Huntington's Disease is. I had read her earlier book, "Still Alice", which is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's, and I thought it was very good. I felt like the author helped me understand what it must be like to be fighting Alzheimer's, knowing that you are losing the battle. The book was made into a movie and Julianne Moore won an Oscar for Best Actress in her role as Alice, so "Inside the O'Briens" is getting a lot of publicity. It is also getting rave reviews.

Although the main character in this book has Huntington's Disease, this is not really a book about HD. It's really the story of a family, their strengths and weaknesses, their fears, and their love. The author manages to give the reader a lot of good information about HD, and I even learned a word that I did not know before - anosognosia (such as when some people with HD don't realize that they have the involuntary movements that are typical of the disease). The information about HD is not presented in a scientific manner but is just part of the story.

After Joe is diagnosed with HD, he and Rosie wait awhile before telling the children because they want to get used to the idea themselves first, but after several months, they get the family together and tell the children that not only does their father have HD but they each have a 50/50 chance of developing it themselves. As can be expected, they are all shocked and scared.

From that point on, much of the book is about how each child deals with being at-risk for Huntington's Disease. Coming from a Huntington's Disease family myself, and being at-risk for 50 years before I was finally tested, I can say that the author really nailed what it is like. Two of the children want to be tested right away to see if they have the defective gene that causes the disease. One doesn't want to know and one can't decide whether she wants to know or not. And all the while, they are watching their father losing his battle with HD.

I think this book would probably be pretty hard for someone who is at-risk or who has tested positive for HD to read. I tested negative so I will not develop HD, but even so, there were times when I had tears in my eyes and had to put the book down. I still highly recommend it, though. It's a great story. The characters are real and we come to know not only their fears about HD but other important things in their lives as well.

I want to personally thank Lisa Genova for writing this book. I believe it is going to do wonders for Huntington's Disease awareness. I hope it is made into a movie!

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Created: April 17, 2015
Last updated: April 25, 2015