What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
May 7, 2013
But first, I don't want to gush and rave about it without giving other readers an honest heads-up: there is quite a bit of offensive language scattered throughout (multiple uses of the F-word and the name of God in vain, as well as some milder swear words). Also, there are some brief mentions of sex and a couple of immoral acts, none of which are very descriptive. I'm mentioning this up front because it is unusual for me to read a book with this kind of content, and so I don't want anyone picking it up on my recommendation without fair warning. I realize that the moral standard by which people judge a book's content is as varied as books themselves. Even my own standard seems somewhat flexible as I have observed that a handful of swear words doesn't necessarily make a book "bad" while, at the same time, perfectly clean language doesn't automatically make a book "good." Just my own two cents' worth.
In this case, I felt like I gained so much by reading this book. Even though it's classified as "chick-lit," it didn't feel fluffy and empty at all. I can already tell it's the kind of book I will still remember several years from now and will probably reread at some point.
Okay, that all got rather long and drawn out. Sorry. Shall we get to the actual book?
When the story begins, Alice Love is regaining consciousness after falling and hitting her head. She is confused and disoriented, and it soon becomes apparent that she has lost the last ten years of her memory. She wakes up thinking she is pregnant with her first child, in the midst of a happy marriage, with loving family and friends. Instead, she finds that she has three children, is on the brink of divorce, and has gone through some bitter heartaches and tragedies.
I wasn't lying when I said this book had me on page one. Sometimes it takes me a couple chapters to really settle into a story as I familiarize myself with the characters and the setting, and this often translates as a slow start. So you would have thought that the beginning of this book would have been frustrating because it is intentionally confusing and scattered. But instead, it had the opposite effect, and I think it was because Alice herself is confused and scattered. So unlike with other stories where I acutely feel that I am the reader, a bystander looking in on a different world, in this case, I felt like I was Alice: I didn't know who the woman with "sleek bobbed hair" was, but neither did she, so we were even...I was figuring it out at the same rate she was, whereas in other books the main character already knows who her best friend is, and so I, as the reader, have to be brought up to speed...the sooner, the better (for my sake).
At the beginning, Alice's brain is so far removed from her current life that I had to keep reminding myself that no, she hadn't been in a coma for ten years, and no, she hadn't traveled through time and miraculously landed ten years in the future. She had actually been living her life just minutes before she hit her head and lost all recollection of it. So, yes, she is responsible for all the choices she has already made, and no, she doesn't get to go back and fix them.
Medically speaking, I have no idea how accurate this is. If you really did hit your head and lose your memory, could you really lose a chunk of time like Alice did, and would you just have a few shadows of memory here and there before it all finally came rushing back in complete and total clarity? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure actual amnesia isn't as romantic as this (for one thing, I have a feeling they wouldn't let you leave the hospital so easily in real life), but I don't really care because it made a great story.
Besides Alice's own story, which is told in third-person, there is also her sister, Elisabeth's story (told in first person as a therapeutic letter to her psychiatrist) and her grandmother, Frannie's story (told in first person as a letter to her long-dead fiancé). In the ten years that Alice forgot, her older sister, Elisabeth, has married and tried to have children for years. She's been through numerous IVF cycles, pregnancies, and miscarriages, and by this time, she is filled with such bitterness and resentment that she is going a little crazy. Frannie, on the other hand, is concerned about her family but also has caught the eye of one of the older gentlemen at her retirement village.
I loved these sub-plots and really felt like they helped move the story along by providing multiple viewpoints and perspectives to events. But not only that, they made it so that you truly cared about other people, not just about Alice.
For example, Elisabeth told her story with gut-wrenching honesty. I could feel her bitterness, depression, cynicism, and deep sadness. Since it is written as a letter to her psychiatrist, it is supposed to be a form of therapy for her, something that technically no one will see but just a way for her to get all of her feelings out there and away from herself. Because of that, it is written in a very sort of stream of conscious way with lots of tangents and side notes. At one point, she said: "I remember thinking about how mothers were prepared to run into burning buildings to save their children's lives. I thought I should be able to go through a bit more suffering, a bit more inconvenience to give my children life. It made me feel noble. But now I realize I'm a crazy woman running into a burning house for children who don't exist." Later on, she said, "So what sort of mother would I be? A horrible one. Maybe even an abusive one. They'd probably take my children away and give them to someone else. An infertile woman could adopt them." Elisabeth felt so real to me. I felt like I should say something to her, try to comfort her, but I had no idea what, if anything, would help ease her pain.
At the beginning of the story, as Alice is trying to piece together her life over the last ten years, you get the impression that she has really messed up her life: she's become consumed with materialistic pleasures, she has filled her life with meaningless projects, she has abandoned her sister in her time of need, she has mercilessly criticized her husband. I felt just the tiniest bit of resentment towards her, like, I hope you straighten out your life now that you see what a complete jerk you've been for ten years. But the story is so much more intricate than that, and it soon becomes apparent that all of the supporting characters are flawed in various ways and have contributed to who Alice has become. Isn't this the way life is? There are always at least two sides to a story, and everyone makes mistakes. I think the beautiful thing about this story is that after Alice gets her memory back, she is able to see both her life in 1998 and her life in 2008 much more clearly. Even though she still feels hurt about all the things that have happened, she is also able to see what kind of life she wants to have.
I thought this quote at the end summed up perfectly how shared memory really does unite people, binding them together in a way that you can't achieve without the memories: "Each memory, good and bad, was another invisible thread that bound them together, even when they were foolishly thinking they could lead separate lives. It was as simple and complicated as that."
Of course, I couldn't read a book about forgetting ten years of your life, and not think about what it would be like if I lost the last ten years of my life. Ten years ago, I was 18 years old. I was still living at home but getting ready for my first semester at BYU. I didn't know who Mike was. I had a whole different set of friends. I was naive and incredibly innocent (I didn't even know what the f-word was...). So many of the people that I care about so deeply now, I didn't even know then! It's so crazy to go back ten years, but it's also crazy to try to project myself ten years into the future and wonder if my life will change as dramatically in ten more years as it did over the last ten years.
One of the things I loved about this book had nothing to do with the actual story per se. Liane Moriarty is an Australian author, and I loved all of the little words and phrases that so obviously set it apart as Australian. I definitely learned some things: boot = (car) trunk; jumper = sweater (I actually had to look that one up); car park = parking lot; rear-vision mirror = rear view mirror. Also, the book takes place in May, but they kept acting like the weather was a bit chilly. It wasn't until they mentioned a sweltering hot Christmas that I thought, Of course! Southern Hemisphere, Amy!
I don't want to spoil the ending, but I just have to say that when it was over, I realized I'd been tense and holding my breath for the last ten pages. I let out all that pent up breath in an audible sigh of relief. I was so worried that things weren't going to turn out the way I wanted them to, and I desperately wanted a happy ending. Thankfully, this is one book I would not have changed the ending on at all.
I love reading for so many reasons, but when I read a book like this one, where the pages literally seem to just melt away and I find myself trying to back pedal just to let the story last a little longer, I remember why reading is so much fun.