ALICE & OLIVER, by Charles Bock. Random House, 399 pp., $28.
We meet Alice Culvert and her husband, Oliver, on a Wednesday in November 1993, heading out of Manhattan to spend Thanksgiving with her mother in Vermont. She’s a fashionista, he’s a software developer; they live in a converted industrial space in the Meatpacking District with their 6-month-old daughter. There are cute, trendy couples like this whom one instinctively hates, and others one develops an instant crush on. Alice and Oliver are the second type. Unfortunately, we’re meeting them at the start of the worst period of their lives.
Alice is overcome by a coughing fit on the way to meet Oliver at the car rental agency, then gets so sick on the road that they go straight to her childhood pediatrician, then on to the hospital. She is diagnosed with pneumonia and leukemia. It will be more than a month before they can return to New York.
And that is only the beginning. To qualify for the bone marrow transplant that is her only hope of survival, Alice must endure several rounds of chemo and hospitalization, separating her from the baby and from her less hardy friends — though the best of them soldier on through the familiar parade of cancer horrors, cooking, baby-sitting, moisturizing, meditating, dolling up a hospital room like “an opium den,” with orange crepe paper over the lights and a magic-markered sign reading CANCER SCHMANCER SO LONG AS YOU’RE HEALTHY. Oliver has his own path of fire: gaping holes in insurance coverage, serious trouble at work, terrible loneliness that drives him to seek a guilty solace.
We journey with Alice and Oliver until there is nothing cute left about them, until the illness has twisted them in its grip and drained their resources, when the only comfort is no comfort at all. Even more than the meticulous details of drugs, treatments and side effects, Bock’s tender portrayal of them in all their desolation gives the novel its ring of truth.
Bock, whose 2008 debut was the justly acclaimed “Beautiful Children,” is a generous writer. He packs his sentences with imagery and humor and gusto, he fills out his scenes with wisdom and ironic asides, he waxes lyrical as a Beat poet in passages capturing the New York scene at different points in time, he sandwiches into the narrative brief “case studies” of other patients with other cancer trajectories: “Sure, it made him feel low to watch other second graders run around the playground”; “It was during her first week, working the front desk at an oncology office, that she felt a lump in her right breast.” A section at the end switches from third person to Alice’s point of view, letting us inside her dear and brilliant head.
Much as I loved this novel, the acknowledgments at the end — where Bock speaks candidly about the origins of the story and its relationship to his real life — made me love it twice as much. Instead of blurring the beauty and truth of the novel with inevitable questions about “how much is true” and “why didn’t he write a memoir,” those questions are directly answered — and the answers make you see why fiction was a great choice, allowing him to develop his heroine in a way that would have been impossible in memoir, to play with the fictional possibilities of New York City in the early ’90s and to create the most engaging experience for the reader.
Interestingly, the only part of the book I had trouble with was its denouement, a snapshot of the characters 17 years later. I didn’t quite believe it, and it didn’t surprise me to learn in the acknowledgments that the facts were otherwise. See if you agree when you read it, which I strongly recommend.