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Alice & Oliver


Alice & Oliver

When Charles Bock’s debut novel, BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, was published in 2008, it was a sensation. But unbeknownst to most readers, in the wake of its success, Bock and his family were undergoing a drama of their own, as his wife was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 and died two-and-a-half years later, just days before their daughter’s third birthday. Now, in his second novel, ALICE & OLIVER, Bock uses fiction to explore the devastating effects of cancer on a young family very much like his own.

ALICE & OLIVER is set in 1993, which makes the novel interesting as a reminder of how many things --- from New York City real estate to health insurance policies --- have changed since that relatively recent history. Oliver Culvert is a computer programmer, working night and day on a product that could revolutionize the way people use applications on their personal computers. His wife, Alice, is a freelancer in fashion design. The two live in a somewhat dilapidated but expansive loft in New York’s Meatpacking District, the kind of place that would probably cost millions of dollars today but was underappreciated at the time.

"ALICE & OLIVER is simultaneously suspenseful and contemplative, offering a perceptive and at times painful glimpse of how one family bears the unbearable."

On the way to a family trip with their infant daughter, Doe, Alice, who had been dealing with exhaustion for quite some time, experiences a physical collapse, which lands her in a hospital in rural New Hampshire. There she receives a devastating diagnosis: she has leukemia. After a weeks-long stay in the hospital, she is eventually allowed to return home, but the cancer has already fundamentally altered their small family’s life. During periods when the treatments essentially wipe out her immune system, Alice is forced to stay away from Doe and all the germs that an infant can carry; chemotherapy poisons her breast milk, so she has to wean the baby long before either of them are ready. Alice finds herself caught between the high-tech promises of Western medicine and the more holistic, natural approach of alternative healers, which Oliver openly scorns even as it seems to offer Alice some hope and comfort.

The emotional and spiritual toll of Alice’s diagnosis is compounded by the terrifying realities of dealing with medical billing and insurance. The family’s policy soon proves woefully inadequate for meeting the astronomical expenses of cancer treatment, and Oliver finds himself exerting as much energy battling with the hospitals and insurers as he does caring for his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, the two of them must deal independently and jointly with the toll that Alice’s illness places on their marriage and sex lives.

ALICE & OLIVER would be a profoundly emotional novel to read even without knowing about the author’s back story; his personal history, however, makes it that much more poignant. Bock reveals in his author’s note that some passages from Alice’s point of view were directly inspired by the journal his late wife kept during her cancer treatment, writings that she hoped might one day become a memoir. ALICE & OLIVER is simultaneously suspenseful and contemplative, offering a perceptive and at times painful glimpse of how one family bears the unbearable.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 29, 2016

Alice & Oliver
by Charles Bock

  • Publication Date: April 18, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812980425
  • ISBN-13: 9780812980424