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BOOK REVIEW

From tragedy comes empathy

‘Left Neglected’ a story of recovery

By Jessica Treadway
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2011

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Lisa Genova is one of the few people who can answer to the call for a novelist-neuroscientist. Pairing her knowledge of how the brain works (or, more precisely, how it doesn’t work) with an ability to depict the individual experience of brain injury or disease, Genova educates us about the science of a given condition as we invest in the fictional story of a character who suffers from it.

Genova’s first novel, the bestseller “Still Alice,’’ rendered the plight of a woman coping with early onset Alzheimer’s. In “Left Neglected,’’ Genova turns her focus to a lesser-known condition called left neglect, also known as hemispatial neglect, which can be caused by damage to the right hemisphere of the brain. In such cases, the patient suffers an attention deficit and fails to recognize the left side of the body and the space around it, often with disastrous results.

This is the fate Sarah Nickerson wakes up to after she is involved in a severe car accident that occurs when she takes her eyes off the highway to make a business call. A 37-year-old mother of three who works 80 hours a week in a high-powered and high-pressure job, Sarah is the ultimate multitasker who — though claiming she loves her job precisely because it is so demanding — twice a month allows herself to cry for five minutes at her desk, to “reset.’’

Her accident lands her in a rehab facility, where Sarah struggles to come to terms with her new limitations: she cannot dress herself, walk without a cane, make sense of a newspaper article, or trust herself to navigate a trip to the ladies’ room in a restaurant. Driving is out of the question, as is returning to her job any time soon. Her husband has to supervise her when she brushes her teeth, as he does for their three children, because her brain doesn’t register the left side of her mouth. Beyond these physical challenges lies the voice in her head that keeps asking, “What happens if I don’t get better?’’

Sarah’s mother — who essentially checked out of her daughter’s life, and her own, after Sarah’s brother drowned as a child — comes to help Sarah’s husband, Bob, take care of the children. And when the insurance company deems Sarah ready to move home, even though the patient herself does not feel prepared, her mother takes care of Sarah as well. “I try to remember the last time she helped me with anything,’’ Sarah tells us, at a loss to absorb her mother’s sudden competence and generosity. In one of the book’s moments of dark humor, she adds, “I think she poured me a glass of milk in 1984.’’

Though Sarah has always prided herself on being a “competitive, Type A perfectionist’’ and vows to “recover faster than anyone here would predict,’’ her progress is too slow to satisfy her until it begins to occur to her, gradually, that the life she could ultimately construct, in the context of her new challenges, might be at least as gratifying as her previous one — and perhaps even more so.

Some readers will likely find a few of the plot elements a bit too neat. There is the fact that Sarah’s need for help provides an opportunity for her mother to redeem herself for having neglected her daughter early on. There is the diagnosis of Sarah and Ben’s son, Charlie, with attention deficit disorder shortly after Sarah’s accident; because of her own condition, Sarah is able to sympathize with her son in a way she could not have, before suffering her brain injury. There is a solution to a problem near the end of the book that feels dropped out of the blue.

Despite these contrivances, “Left Neglected’’ is a novel worth reading for the way it informs a little-known medical condition, as well as the engaging story of a character who transcends what could have been a tragedy to find a fresh appreciation for life.

Jessica Treadway, author of the story collection “Please Come Back to Me,’’ can be reached at jessicatreadway.com.

LEFT NEGLECTED By Lisa Genova

Gallery, 327 pps., $25