Since Charles Bock’s unforgettable 2008 debut novel, Beautiful Children, seared us with its bleak portrait of teen runaways and the Vegas fringe, I’ve married, moved across the country, lived in three homes and fathered two children. And all the while, periodically, I’ve wondered, when the heck is this guy going to write another book?
Well, nearly eight years after showing up on the New York Times Notable Books of the Year list, Bock gives us Alice & Oliver, at once a heart-wrenching story of a young couple’s world crumbling and an explanation, of sorts, of just where Bock has been all these years.
In 2009, when their daughter was six months old, Bock’s wife, Diana, was diagnosed with cancer. She died two-and-a-half years later. Out of that time comes this book.
Alice and Oliver Culvert are the parents of a newborn named Doe. It is 1993, and they live in New York City’s edgy (at the time) Meatpacking District. They are both creative people: Oliver writes code and Alice works steadily in the fashion world. We meet Alice first. She is healthy for about two inches of type. In paragraph one she coughs up blood on the street. On page six she is nearly dead. By page 12, Alice has cancer, and this powerful, riveting book becomes an exercise in keeping your lip from trembling.
As Alice’s treatment begins, she and Oliver are the perfect couple, very much in love. Oliver bares his teeth at cancer, and toggles between being Alice’s protector and her jailer. But Alice deteriorates, and the duo is worn down by the labyrinthine medical system and the lacerating effects of treatment and uncertainty. They turn away from each other. Alice has a bizarre, fraught encounter with an alcoholic musician named Mervyn, who hits on her in the hospital—somehow without being totally repulsive. Oliver, meanwhile, finds himself adrift when not sitting bedside, and explores outlets that may prove poisonous to their marriage.
Bock, unsurprisingly, says he cannot imagine a more difficult book to write. Nor is it, emotionally, an easy read. Yet this deep, honest and layered exploration of disease is not depressing. On the contrary, it’s a life-affirming portrait of people trying their best while enduring the worst.