“Please tell me there are others,” I say.
My mother has just modeled the three hats she purchased for me at the mall. She’s still wearing the third one – an absurdly large Victorian tea hat covered with a heaping pile of red roses – along with a slightly deflated smile.
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with this one?”
“You look like Minnie Pearl.”
“I do not.”
“The price tag is even dangling over the side of the brim.”
Sarah is a graduate of Harvard with a degree in business and she is vice president of Human Resources at Berkley Consulting. One day. rushing to her high-powered successful job, she rolls the car and wakes up diagnosed with “Left Neglect”, a brain disorder that manifests in an inability to process the left side of the body. A mother of three children, Sarah has a busy life juggling many things; a husband, career and family. This novel portrays not only her struggle back to life but also the adjustments and changes Sarah is faced with making, both in the present and in her past.
“I think some small part of me knew I was living an unsustainable life. Every now and then, it would whisper, Sarah, please slow down. You don’t need all this. You can’t continue like this. But the rest of me, powerful, smart, and determined to achieve, wasn’t hearing a word of it.”
“Left Neglected” works because there is a lot the reader can identify with. Not just the frustrations of work, a health crisis, child care, and the juggling act that everyday life entails, but also the common difficulties like dealing with health insurance in the aftermath of a serious accident (or surgery. Or a sudden positive CAT scan). Whatever the illness or medical emergency, we’ve all been there:
“I look out the windows into our suburban yard and then through the French door windows into the living room and sigh…
There are only so many word search puzzles I can work on, only so many red balls I can find and pick up off a tray. My outpatient therapy, which was two times a week, is now over. It’s not over because I’ve fully recovered (I haven’t) or because I quit (I didn’t), but because our insurance only pays for ten weeks, and my time was up. How any human being with a molecule of reason, a shred of compassion, and a pulse could establish and stand behind this preposterously premature cutoff is beyond me.
After waiting on hold on the phone for what felt like ten weeks to speak with an actual human being at our insurance company, I expressed my unedited outrage to some poor customer service representative named Betty, who I’m confident had no part in creating the policy and who surely has no influence over changing it. But it felt good to vent.”
And then there are the family relationships. The author keeps this aspect in the novel simple; Sarah had one sibling, but he died in childhood. There are no cousins or aunts and uncles or grandparents to deal with in Sarah’s life and her father passed away while she was in college, but there is her mother. Sarah is very fortunate to have a husband who is faithful and who sticks with her, a supportive partner through thick and thin.
The one area the author could have elaborated more on, (at least from my perspective), is the adjustments made within the family when Sarah returns home from the hospital. Her children seem to take all of the changes in their mother’s life in stride, and her husband also seems to always ‘be there’ for her, while dealing with her handicap, a demanding job, a mother-in-law suddenly back in the picture, two school-age children and a toddler. However, Bob’s human vulnerabilities show up in his desire to see his wife experience normality once again, whether it be taking up her skiing or her old job:
“I’m sorry, Sarah. I don’t want to have this conversation. And I don’t want to pressure you. I know you’re still going through a lot, but I don’t think you should pass up this opportunity. If you wait, they’ll have to find someone else, and they might not offer this to you again. This is your way back. We need you to go back to Berkley.”
His last sentence feels more like an order than an appeal. But just like he couldn’t order me back onto skis, he can’t order me back to work. My stubborn independence has always been a brick wall that Bob’s wanted to kick down. All these years later, it amuses me that he still tries.”
Sarah’s mother pretty much ‘checked out’ of Sarah’s life when her brother died, and her father was the primary caregiver. (Could the neglect over the years and lack of attention from her mother resulted in Sarah’s inner drive to succeed? Paradoxically, Sarah seems to make similar choices as she defines a satisfactory neighborhood where there is ‘good day care’ available, and turns over much of the children’s care to a nanny.)
Now after Sarah’s accident, her mother suddenly shows up, ready to take on the role of motherhood once again. Naturally, this brings up a lot of internal adjusting on Sarah’s part:
“Does my mother believe that I’m a good woman? A good mother? Is she proud of me? Does she believe that I’ll fully recover? I wonder.
And the more I learn, the more questions this seems to unearth, especially about the past. Where was this woman during my childhood? Where were my rules and hot meals and ironed clothes? I wonder if she knows how many hours of ‘The Brady Bunch’ I logged, how many bologna and mayonnaise sandwich dinners I ate alone in front of the TV and without saying grace while she stayed sequestered in her bedroom and my father worked the night shift at the station. Why wasn’t I enough for her?”
And there are the back-to-work worries in addition.
“I’ve always prided myself in being a perfectionist, for dotting 100 percent of my i’s, for doing it all. But what if less than 100 percent were enough? What if I’m 20 percent recovered, and that’s enough to return to my job? It could be. My work is in human resources, a desk job. It’s not performing surgery (requiring two hands) or the fox-trot (requiring two feet). I can be less than 100 percent better and still be brilliant at my job. Can’t I?”
Lisa Genova has once again crafted a novel that not only educates (I had never heard of “Left Neglect” before), but also brings to life the characters and real struggles and dilemmas in life, family, and work relationships that we all face and have to solve at one time or another. A real page-turner! I enjoyed Genova’s “Still Alice” so much, and now after reading “Left Neglected”, I am ready for more from this author!