10 May 2019

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock



A few years ago our pal "book club Becca" so kindly mailed me a copy of the New York Times book section where a favourite author of mine, Elin Hilderbrand, was being interviewed. In the interview she mentioned Charles Bock's Alice & Oliver as being her favourite recent read, and I've been dying to read it ever since. I tried to push it for a book club a few times but, no takers. It's a shame because it was really, really good.

Alice & Oliver is about an ambitious New York couple whose lives are interrupted when Alice is suddenly diagnosed with a very aggressive leukaemia while their daughter is just an infant. The book tells the story of their relationship as Alice tries to fight the cancer, and looks holistically at how the disease affects the entire family. It was incredibly hard to read, not just because it was sad (at times almost too sad to continue), but also because it was highly clinical, and because I knew how personal it was to Bock. Despite the fact that this is a fictional story, Bock's own wife died of cancer when their daughter was just a baby.

I haven't read a lot of books on disease. I wish Meghan would read this to tell me how it compares, because she reads a lot of medical memoirs, but I am fairly confident this has to be one of the best books about cancer that exists. Bock is so thorough in describing what it means to go through fighting cancer. He spares no details discussing Alice's treatments, the science of the cancer, the way the endless number of doctors are in and out of your room analyzing all of your bodily fluids. But he is also generous with the social aspects of it- how Oliver spending hours on the phone with insurance companies and billing departments, the way the doctors talk to you, how your friends begin to behave. The first half of the book is written from the perspective of a narrator, so you get to know the characters objectively. Halfway through, the perspectives change to alternating between Alice and Oliver in the first person. This was wildly successful in helping me understand their experiences.

With the same flat tone that his esteemed colleague had used to tell Alice that her hair was going to fall out, the attending told Oliver these words: 'Cancer is a hell of a disease.'"

Bock is thoughtful in spending time building up Alice as a person, not a patient, before giving her a cancer diagnosis. They recount her college years in NYC, making sushi, attending concerts, getting wild haircuts. When we find out Alice has cancer (extremely early on), it's almost hard as a reader to believe someone so young and vibrant could fall victim to such a terrible disease, and that's entirely the point I think Bock is trying to make.

Cancer is the main topic of the book, and while I think we all know how shitty of a disease it is, unless we've been through it or been directly related to someone with it, I'm not sure we can ever truly know what it takes. Bock certainly does, and the authenticity of his experience comes out in the details, both in the actual things that are happening and in how the characters feel. Reading from the perspective of a woman like Alice, it is clear how cancer, and the actual fighting it, are both actually pure hell.

'It's going to be a long month,' the nurse tsk-tsks. 'I just hope you're ready.'
What's wrong with you? I want to respond. Why would you say that? Except some sort of honeyed light is spreading through me. It's nice enough, and I start to fade, feel my eyes flutter. Then a sensation hits, sharp pain, more concentrated, more focused than any I have experienced during any central line installation. I wince, and moan, and shut my eyes so tight that I can feel the sides of my face cracking. The pain corkscrews further, boring in deeper. I hear myself, an animal in distress. 'More morphine. Give me more morphine.'"

She goes through endless amounts of treatments to prepare for a bone marrow transplant, with layers of medications, each one fighting the side effects of the one before. At one point she actually goes temporarily blind from one of the medications. Her skin dries up, her lips dry up and bleed, she has no energy, she can't eat but is meant to be shovelling calories back, her bowel movements turn into a daily news update, and she can't be around the slightest hint of germs, which means for months on end she can't see her infant daughter for risk of infection. I actually don't know that I'd be strong enough to go through it. The below quote where she flips on the doctor for all of the warnings really resonated with me:

Alice cut him off. 'Let me be clear as I can make myself,' she said. 'Any numbers or information that might upset me, I don't want to know. I'm young. I've been healthy my whole life. I'm not another one of the seventy-year-olds in your waiting room, health and blessings to them all.'"

Throughout all of this, Alice is trying to maintain some sanity and preserve her identity as a human being. This was probably the most difficult aspect of the book, because everybody immediately starts working on her like a project, not considering the emotional toll it takes on a middle-aged woman to no longer be able to care for herself. This was why I found the first person structure so powerful, it was crucial to helping me feel like I could barely, barely, barely start to understand.

'It's impossible to explain,' said Alice. 'How tired I am of being less than myself.'"

Alice and Oliver's relationship was the most interesting element of the story for me personally, we all know how I love to read about marriage. There are so many nuances to this that I could write a full essay, but essentially the marriage starts to break down because both partners feel incredibly stressed, inadequate, and disconnected, and I honestly can't imagine anything worse. There is a terrible scene months into Alice's treatment where they're being intimate and she tries to give him a blow job, quickly realizing she doesn't have the energy or even the saliva for it to be successful. Oliver pulls her off of him and she starts to sob because of her own inadequacy. I felt sick to my stomach reading it.

The worst of it is that Oliver, stressed with the financial burden of the American health care system, the neglect of his business, the neglect of his daughter, and the fact that his wife is dying, begins sleeping with hookers. It's the ultimate betrayal to cheat on your sick wife, but I somehow found myself empathizing with Oliver. The shittest thing he does is tell her. Cheating is betrayal but somehow the most selfish aspect of it is telling your partner you did it. The idea that you're wanting to be 'honest' or 'transparent' is just a nicer way of saying that you wanted to feel less guilty.

He always made sure he was safe. He wanted me to know. This mess has been hanging over him, it had him wrecked. He couldn't lie to me anymore, he said. He didn't want this. He never saw the same woman twice. It didn't mean anything. It was as if a gloved hand were slipping through the cage of my ribs. I felt its icy grip, clutching at my heart."

Alice struggles with it too, she knows how hard everything has been on Oliver, how much he deserved some sort of release, but also, she is dying and her husband cheated on her. I can't imagine how hard it would be to marry those ideas. I love the passage below:

'Believe me, Oliver, I understand what it is to feel your heart pounding between your legs.' I can take no more, and lash out. 'I know all about wanting to escape. But if you think you deserve a lollipop for telling me you fuck prostitutes while I'm decaying in bed with cancer? If you think you can convince me you have a right? What do you want, Oliver? Absolution? Permission?'"

Ultimately Alice finds herself romantically involved with another patient as well. It's practically Shakespearean.

Despite cheating, throughout the entire book I never felt Alice or Oliver were bad people. This could be because Bock was writing a character representative of himself, so he was gentle, but I also don't think anyone can point fingers at how a person behaves in the circumstances they were in. As much as I can't imagine what Alice was going through, I also can't begin to imagine Oliver's experience. So whose to judge really? I'd be interested to know if this adulterous plot line is based on Bock's own experience.

Without trust, your shit was through. Maybe it happened in a slow circling of the drain. Some trial separations, efforts at reparations, couples therapy, all that garbage. But after you attempted to bang away the dents, if your belief in the other person couldn't be banged back into place, couldn't be welded back together, your marriage was done."

They go through this incredibly turbulent phase where nothing changes in their marriage because Alice is sick and they both know they need each other for the time being, despite being unsure if there's a way to repair their relationship. I could read endless books about relationships that fall apart from critical illnesses. I know it's so devastating but I'm very interested in the intricacies, and I'm sure the statistics are high.






Motherhood was also a dominant theme throughout, to the point where I almost included it in last week's list of books on motherhood. Alice is obviously in agony over the fact that she's essentially out of commission as a mother to her infant daughter Doe for the duration of her cancer treatment. In the months prepping for her transplant, she's not even allowed visits from Doe in case the baby was carrying some sort of bacteria that would lower her white blood cells. Babies are apparently dirty. Beyond that, she's also scared to die and that her daughter will grow up without her mom.

It was fear. That their daughter would grow up without ever knowing her mother, that this void would dominate her life; that she wouldn't have a choice but to idealize her absent mother, and would blame her mother for her absence, and would curse her, as well as every woman her dad brought home (family friends who carved time in their schedules to try to assuage how sorry they felt; well-meaning girlfriends wanting to do good; all sorts of potential stepmothers); she would curse her father; curse the world, and, most of all, herself, herself, herself; that lonely teen years would be spent holed up in a corner with Mom's journals, reconstructing her own version of who this woman was- these were the broad strokes. And there were specifics as well. Even if he could not fully grasp them all, the imagining was endless."

The epilogue switches to Doe's perspective, grown into a teenager. ***I will warn you the rest of this review spoils the ending and Alice's outcome.*** In the epilogue Doe struggles with the fact that while her mother recovered and she's grateful for that, it's been a challenge to have to battle her mother's weakness her whole life, giving the impression that while Alice recovers, she spends the next ~18 or so years in and out of illness and struggling to live to her full potential. I'm not really sure why, and Bock doesn't really get into it.

And while she knew that Mom's limitations had nothing to do with love, sometimes her dad still had to remind her... Take on more responsibilities, he asked her. Be more patient be that much better a person. Rise to the challenge. This is what her father wanted from Doe, and it was no exaggeration to report that Doe tried: indeed, she helped with whatever shots or IVs or medications her mom needed, did whatever chores were required. Doe felt a depthless love for her mother, she wholly appreciated how unique and funny and honestly amazing her mother could be. But she'd sort of tired of her mom's limitations, if you wanted to know the truth. Was pretty much over rising."

I really liked that Bock switched to Doe's perspective. I also found it interesting that he allows Alice to live while his own wife died. I spent a lot of time trying to find an interview where he explains this decision but had no luck.

Overall this book was amazing. It was a very difficult read emotionally but I think it was worth it. I've added Bock's Beautiful Children to my wish list, which he wrote prior. I think this would be a great read / make an amazing gift for anyone who has been affected by cancer. As I said earlier, without having read literally any other book on the disease, I am confident this has to be one of the best books on the subject. In Meghan Hayes' fashion, I will leave you with a favourite quote:

How much of life is regret, fretting over mistakes, wishing you had that perfect comeback to your ex, trying to make good for a turn from which there was no returning; reckoning with errors made from pride, desire, need, or defensiveness. Making mistakes because you were afraid. It's a necessary pain: understanding there are fissures that cannot be healed, our time here is messy."

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