Ok, prepare yourself; this is a heart-wrenching read. Not this review (hopefully!) but this book: Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock. I must have been feeling particularly masochistic when I read the blurb in the publisher’s catalogue and requested it anyway. Alice and Oliver are happily in love and overjoyed at their new baby daughter Doe’s arrival, but only months after giving birth, Alice is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. And because they live in America, they have to pay out of pocket for medical expenses, which are obviously high when dealing with a significant issue such as this. So while in the midst of dealing with Alice’s dangerous treatments and her quickly deteriorating body and spirit, her husband Oliver is also saddled with managing a dwindling insurance policy to help pay for everything. And don’t forget they are brand-new parents…
The perspectives switch between Alice and Oliver, which will become more meaningful to the reader as the book continues because a few things occur that rock their marriage (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers here). About half the book gives readers an understanding of what it’s like to inhabit the body of a cancer patient struggling to live, which is a grueling thing to read and digest. But these sections are well-balanced by Oliver’s parts, which force us out of the hospital and back into a day-to-day struggle with the mundane but necessary aspects of life, including bill paying, talking with coworkers and arranging babysitters. The author’s note at the back explains that these horrible circumstances were experienced by the author himself-Bock’s wife was diagnosed with leukemia when their child was 6 months old. Once you get past how horrific and unfair everything seems, this book is also a surprisingly in-depth and honest look at marriage and how fragile it can be.
This writing is incredibly visceral; there are specific and detailed explanations of medical treatments and its side effect, but also the awe of a new father holding his ten-minute old baby. Bock is clearly aware of how difficult it is to read this book so he throws us lifelines when things get too dark, and we’re treated to glimpses of the couple’s past as young, adventurous New Yorkers living life loudly. Alice also enjoys an enviable group of supportive friends who give her strength when it’s most needed. Although it sounds cliche, this story will truly make you grateful for the positive things in life, because as we all know, it can get worse, much worse.
The strongest part of this book, aside from the writing, is the characterization. Although I’ve never had cancer or been seriously ill (thank god!) I do know many people who have gotten cancer, some of them lost to it, and the range of emotions and reactions that Alice and Oliver have to their new life rang entirely true to me. Even the varied reactions of their friends seemed entirely realistic-some buckled down and helped wherever they could, some attempted to help but flaked out, while others dropped away out of fear or awkwardness.
So many of you are probably asking-why should I read this? Why should I subject myself to such a sad book? At the risk of sounding cliche, this book is more about life than it is about death, plus I believe it’s valuable to read books that deal with such a taboo but common occurrence. We don’t want to talk about the nitty gritty of a cancer diagnosis, but chances are cancer will affect almost every single person on the earth, so wouldn’t you like to help prepare yourself for that inevitable challenge? Even if it’s a distant friend or relative of yours that gets sick, being able to put yourself into their shoes for even a short visit is invaluable for that patient, and if fiction can do that for us, it’s well worth your time.