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Life, love, and illness in ‘Alice & Oliver’

Illustration by Tim Robinson

One review describes Charles Bock’s second novel, “Alice & Oliver,” as “critic-proof,” and there’s some truth to that. As an appended conversation with the author makes explicit, the novel is based largely on Bock’s own experience after his wife’s diagnosis with leukemia — ultimately fatal — in 2011, when their daughter was six months old. Given this information, any reader, especially one whose own life has intersected with cancer, might find themselves in a forgiving mood.

Setting his story in 1993-94 New York City, Bock introduces Alice, a young wife and mother, freelance fashion designer, and acolyte of various New Age and Buddhist beliefs, and her husband, Oliver, an early version of a “bro-grammer.” From the outset, Alice begins to suffer the first symptoms of the disease that will consume both the novel and the lives of the couple and their infant daughter, Doe.

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The novel moves back and forth between their points of view (and, briefly into those of a handful of hospital personnel), as Bock offers a clear-eyed recounting of Alice’s treatment, detailing the discomforts and injustices, small and large, of American medical care, as well as the emotional and intellectual strain that cancer puts on a family. Especially in the novel’s last third, as Alice undergoes chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant and its aftereffects, his descriptions are moving in their precision. In the extremes of serious illness, as Bock well knows, life is about a surplus of technical detail; it’s about the exhaustion of uncertainty, of too many attempts at alertness, of too much energy expended in gauging who is advocating for whom. Bock doesn’t balk at the tedious minutiae of disease, and in this way — and by, for the most part, refusing to romanticize Alice herself — he avoids most cliches attending a novel of this kind.

Yet his book as a whole is far from polished. The prose, much of it spirited and bright in defiance of its subject, is peppered with clunky and awkward constructions (“a trip that had encompassed not just the PATH but across this city”) and ill-fated attempts at literary flourish (“Eggs of worry had hatched through his stomach, spawning colonies at the base of his spine”).

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Where Bock tries to create plot around Alice’s illness rather than, as he largely does, through it, actions seemingly take place in order to serve his themes (i.e., that no relationship is simple) rather than emerging naturally from the lives of his characters. A very interesting if questionably necessary musician character, for instance, seems to want to signify far more than he manages to do. There’s also the short-lived device of “Case Studies,” or short profiles of other patients, which, while heartbreaking, do little for the novel itself.

Too, where Oliver fails as a husband and caretaker, it seems needless for him to have failed so extremely; far more natural and effective are those scenes when he leaves the hospital to gorge himself on unhealthy food or have a beer, knowing that these are things denied to his wife. That illness can shade even such ordinary pleasures with guilt feels truer, more revelatory than those other narrative options.

Alice and Oliver are not always particularly likable, and for a book about terminal illness it’s a rare and courageous author that’s willing to risk losing the reader’s sympathies this way. That shifts a bit near the end when Alice begins to speak in the first person — elsewhere, it’s not always apparent whose head we’re in, as though Bock were both inside and outside his characters’ voices. The result is that what’s meant to be Oliver’s and Alice’s occasional judgmental or petty readings of their world inadvertently rubs off on Bock himself: an urban-chic snobbishness (smirking at friends who “still commuted from outer boroughs” bringing “ten-dollar bottles of wine and five dollar bouquets” as housewarming gifts); the fetishistic way the prose addresses possessions (“ the safety of dim conical lighting, the refuge of a boxy sofa sectional, designed with the elegance of fifties modernism”); and a strange concern with women’s weight.

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Still, Bock’s heart, and the novel’s, is in the hospital room, where he sticks to the bold decision to construct Alice’s character in relation to her illness, showing how her moral and spiritual strengths sustain and uphold her and those around. At its best, “Alice & Oliver” shows that, even in a situation that’s about as terrible as it can be, there can still exist happiness, surprise, and life, that strange strong spirit that’s with us until the end.

ALICE & OLIVER

By Charles Bock

Random House, 416 pp., $28


Jenny Hendrix is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement, and the Boston Review, among other publications.