It begins on a weekend trip. The excitement of a getaway far from the city replaced with the sudden inability to breathe, an ambulance arriving, and a hasty trip to the nearest hospital as a body’s immune system begins to shut down. After this, the will to live and the battle that will ensue against the cruelest of enemies, is the story of Alice and Oliver, the second novel by Charles Bock.
Alice and Oliver Culvert, a young couple living in mid-90s Manhattan, are as much in love with their new baby daughter as they are with each other. Alice, a New Age thinking, filled with life fashion designer, wears her sophistication like the label on her clothes. Ecstatic with her new role as a mother beside her husband Oliver, a computer programmer and a startup visionary of sorts, Alice is certain life couldn’t be better.
Until she is suddenly diagnosed with leukemia, and everything begins to crumble. Alice can no longer depend on her body, once so strong and full of life, now being pumped full of drugs and chemicals designed to keep her alive. Even surrounded by a husband who loves and cares for her, a circle of close friends, and her mother, she begins to feel that her optimism and incredible spirit might not save her this time.
Oliver is also thrown an additional curve ball. Not only is his wife slowly and painfully wasting away in a hospital but now he has to confront the harsh reality of an unforgiving health care system, as the insurance begins to run out and the medical bills begin to climb even higher.
The illness, the lack of money, the battle with the insurance companies, the reality of having to prepare for the worst possible outcome begin to unravel Alice and Oliver and not only their marriage begins to be affected by Alice’s cancer but also what has until now been their perception of love and unbreakable bonds. While lying in her hospital bed, too weak to do anything else but think about the ever present possibility of death, Alice remembers her mother telling her that no matter how much people love each other, humans are flawed and imperfect, that this eventually shows through the cracks.
Bock presents these flaws in reactions that seem maddening but also deeply human. Beneath our rationality and intelligent brains, we are animals at our core. Alice and Oliver try to deal with their pain and profound fear in ways that have nothing to do with thinking and more to do with feeling; feeling alive and exhilarated for a while, even when our bodies start giving up and becoming nothing more than a shell of our former selves.
Even when the illness acts as a catalyst for Alice and Oliver to begin looking outside of each other for comfort and empathy, they learn that their love has a bigger reach than they thought. From the pain the cancer brings to their lives and to those around them, the bonds that tie them together are tested, transformed and made even stronger.
The novel is inspired by Bock’s own experience when he lost his wife to cancer two and a half years after she was diagnosed, leaving behind their three year old daughter, caring friends, and a journal in which she documented her experience in the hope that it would help other cancer victims. The narrative is sometimes confusing, jumping from present to past and then to present again. The time jumps to the past are especially confusing when they are placed between real time dialogue.
Even when the intention is clearly to evoke a past memory significant to the story, the transition is at times not smooth enough to achieve it. Towards the end of the book, the point of view shifts from third-person, to Alice’s first person perspective. However, this does not diminish the story. Instead it gives us much needed insight into what she is thinking and feeling.
Alice and Oliver is a story of hope amidst tragedy and fear, which stays with us long after we’ve turned the final page. It sparks feelings of sorrow, fear, and anger in the heart of anyone who has battled with cancer or lost someone to it. At the same time, it ignites in the reader deep admiration and respect for the character of Alice Culvert, a woman who in the moment of her worst nightmare, becomes a beacon for strength and courage.