Review: Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Inside the ObriensHuntington’s disease (HD) has been called the cruellest disease known to man. It’s a neurodegenerative disease, typically diagnosed between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five. Those diagnosed experience a progressive loss of voluntary motor control as they proceed inexorably towards death in ten to twenty years. It is an inherited disease; every child of a parent with HD has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutated gene, and genetic testing means it’s possible to determine one’s genetic status.

But there is no treatment that affects the progression of Huntington’s.

There is no cure.

Which makes you wonder: what casts the darker shadow: knowing your fate, or living under a cloud of ignorance? What if you’re gene negative, while your siblings are gene positive? Huntington’s is a disease of chance; a cruel game of What If? It is the subject of Lisa Genova’s latest novel, Inside the O’Briens, a moving and enlightening family drama that presents the resilience of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances. Life, ultimately, is what we make of it. It’s up to us to seize it.

Joe O’Brien is a Boston cop; a tough, no-nonsense guy, who takes his job seriously. He’s not a high-ranking officer; he’s still a street cop, oftentimes pulling traffic duty, or school-crossing duty. But he loves it, despite the long hours and bearing witness to the worst Boston has to offer on a daily basis. Joe’s a family man; he’s got a wife and four grown-up kids, with a grandson on the way. They’re neither rich, nor poor; they make ends meet. They’re like you and me, a family, content in their ways, who’ve charted a course to Happily Ever After.

Until Joe’s tempter begins flaring abruptly; he becomes increasingly clumsy; he experiences the first hint of chorea. The doctor diagnoses Joe with Huntington’s, revealing a family history of the disease Joe had been oblivious to. This revelation is bad enough for Joe and his wife, Rosie; made worse when they discover their kids have a 50 percent chance of having the disease. Their familial bond, never truly tested for, finds itself under considerable strain, and Joe, powerless, can blame nobody, not even himself. Will the O’Brien’s unite or disintegrate?

Inside the O’Briens is a candid portrayal of a family dealing with catastrophic circumstances. Cynics might suggest Genova has simply repeated the formula she mastered in Still Alice, but that doesn’t do her latest novel justice. This is a novel about family and the bonds that strengthen us. The human body is fallible, but the human spirit is unbreakable.

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