Inside the O’Briens Book Review

Anybody who knows the name Lisa Genova will be familiar with the book Still Alice, which deals with a woman experiencing an early onset of Alzheimer’s. The novel was so successful that it was turned into an award-winning movie. Since then, Genova has written other titles in what one reviewer called the “neurotypical fiction” genre. This category involves stories about people dealing with neurotypical ailments. One of these includes our subject for this review Inside the O’Briens, which is very informative about Huntington’s Disease and honest about how people – those inflicted with and not – handle it.

Inside the O’Briens revolves around Joe O’Brien – a 44-year-old police officer, husband, and father of four adult children from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. After experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and involuntary movements, Joe goes to a neurologist and gets diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease (HD). Sadly, the disease has no treatment nor a cure. What’s worse is that each of the children has a 50% chance of inheriting it, and a simple blood test could seal their fate. The youngest – 21-year-old Katie – struggles with whether or not she wants to know. As his symptoms get worse, Joe loses his job and battles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose. In the meantime, Katie and her siblings must find the courage to live their lives “at risk” or take the test and learn their fate.

Before I actually review Inside the O’Briens, I want to be clear that I’ve not read Still Alice. As a result, I refuse to compare it with the former because it isn’t fair for the time being. The reason that I brought up Still Alice was that everytime I see Genova’s name in some book, that title is always mentioned. I have a feeling that Still Alice is going to haunt her for the rest of her life. Someday, I hope to read it and watch the movie. Now on with the review!

I went into Inside the O’Briens knowing very little about HD. The only thing I could recall about it was that Woody Guthie inherited that disorder from his mother, and some of his children got it from him. If one is wondering, Arlo didn’t inherit the HD gene. Luckily, the book helped me to understand more about the disease in more ways than one. For instance, I liked that Rosie – Joe’s wife – noticed his HD symptoms 6-7 years before he did. Once it became obvious that something was wrong with him, Joe tries to give excuses for his more unusual behavior like stress on the job. He even doubts them at the same time, thinking that it could be something worse (a mentality he has undoubtedly developed while working as a police officer). When he gets the official diagnosis, the neurologist explains that it would take about 10-20 years to worsen.

The reason why I was able to understand HD more was that Genova framed the disorder around a family and explored a lot of the questions surrounding it. For example, the subplot of this story involves Katie debating whether or not to take the test. She gets so obsessed with this question and with imagining the future with a positive or negative HD gene that she closes herself off from her family and her boyfriend Felix. In the end, she realizes that whatever happens, she knows that she should enjoy her life and take risks and that she has her family and Felix to turn to no matter what.

I also want to point out that not much happens in the novel. Yet, when events occur, they are immediately put into the HD context. When word gets out that the son Patrick impregnated a girl out of wedlock and doesn’t want to marry her, the family reacts in a way that an Irish Catholic one would, but HD makes it worse. Another event that illustrates this well is that at one point, Joe and Rosie get a divorce not because they don’t love each other, but to give Rosie financial stability. Again, this would alarm a normal Catholic family, yet keeping HD in mind reevaluates the situation. 

Now this may seem like a whole lot of melodrama, but I assure readers that Genova peppers humor in the right places. I giggled everytime the book mentions Joe’s love for the Red Sox, especially the passing mentions of his attempts to convert Felix – a Yankees fan – into one.

If I have to nitpick, it would be Felix’s character. He basically comes off as a manic pixie dream boy (*cough Jesse from Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2). He has very little inner life, and a lot of his dialogue focuses on Katie. However, the more I thought about this, the more I realized that maybe Felix was intentionally written that way for two reasons. One was probably to show that he’s basically perfect for Katie despite him being a Yankees fan, a Baptist, and black in a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner manner. The other reason was likely to display how Katie had been so consumed by her thoughts on taking the test that she doesn’t consider how he and her family have been feeling. 

I listened to the audiobook, and it’s narrated by Skipp Sudduth – an actor best known for his role as Sully in the series Third Watch. He gives a Bostonian vibe to the main character that doesn’t come off as a caricature. This makes sense since he was born in Warham, Massachusetts near Plymouth. In addition, he gives off similar auras to the other characters, even the female ones. Normally, I would nitpick on how he had all of the female characters sound the same. But in this case, I surprisingly didn’t care. Sudduth probably knew he couldn’t pull off female voices, so he gave them their own Bostonian touches. Honestly, if he did, then I would’ve complained.

Overall, Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova is a well-done novel that explores Huntington’s Disease and how a family deals with it in realistic manners. There’s plenty of humor to balance out the melodramatic aspects. I would recommend it to those who want to know more about HD in the non-medical sense and those who like reading books about people battling diseases. If Genova continues to write books in the “neurotypical fiction” genre, I wouldn’t mind at all, for she pens them so well.

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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