ALICE & OLIVER. By Charles Bock. Random House. 416 pages. $28.
Set in early 1990s Manhattan when street corners touted pay phones, Charles Bock’s “Alice and Oliver” jarringly drops readers into cancer’s attack on a young family. It begins with a sudden bout of nausea on the sidewalk and a subsequent diagnosis. Abruptly, a blue wig replaces Alice’s natural hair and formula must substitute the breast milk now toxic to her and Oliver’s daughter. While Alice fights to stay alive, Oliver battles insurance policies and his own demons.
Time stretches on in meticulous detail, and it’s in these dragging days in hospitals and bedrooms where readers yearn for Alice’s recovery, root for Oliver’s life to resemble normalcy again and hope their relationship will withstand the relentless disease that seems to creep from Alice’s bones into their whole life.
Bock’s prose rarely leads readers by the hand from one scene to another. Rather, without warning, he places them in the middle of yet another conversation with doctors or a new phase of treatment. Speckled between the present struggles are glimpses of Alice and Oliver before cancer: a teenage Alice hovered over a Ouija Board, a grad school Oliver hustling apartment rentals between classes, the pre-baby couple smoking a joint on the couch.
As Alice’s body withers, the couple drifts away from what they once were. Neither are heroes, and while cancer sometimes draws out the best in them, it lugs along with the worst. Surrounded by friends, a mother, a holistic healer armed with incense, an unexpected stalker and a host of nurses and doctors, Alice and Oliver maneuver a foreign world.
The novel sheds a glaring light on the everyday drudge of fighting illness, yet pierces through the monotony with pithy characters that readers will simultaneously ache for and loathe. Inspired by his own family’s struggle with cancer, Bock’s writing will crush readers in the best possible way.
Reviewer Christina Ledbetter writes for the Associated Press.