Alice & Oliver A novel

Charles Bock

Book - 2016

"Alice Culvert is a force: passionate, independent, smart, and gorgeous, she--to her delight--attracts attention wherever she goes, even amid the buzz of mid-90s New York. In knee-high boots, with her newborn daughter, Doe, strapped to her chest, Alice is one of those people who just seem so vividly alive, which makes her cancer diagnosis feel almost incongruous. How could such a being not go on? But all at once, Alice's existence, and that of her husband Oliver, is reduced to a single purpose: survival. As they combat the disease, the couple must also face off against the serpentine healthcare system, the good intentions of loved ones, and the deep, dangerous stressors that threaten to push the two of them apart. With veracity, h...umor, wisdom, and love, Charles Bock navigates one family's unforgettable story - inspired by his own"--

Saved in:

1st Floor Show me where

FICTION/Bock Charles
1 / 1 copies available
Location Call Number   Status
1st Floor FICTION/Bock Charles Checked In
New York : Random House [2016]
Main Author
Charles Bock (-)
First edition
Physical Description
399 pages ; 25 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

THE TROUBLE STARTS on the first page. Alice Culvert hurries down a New York sidewalk, carrying her baby and a heavy knapsack, on her way to Thanksgiving in Vermont with its millions of tiny stinging tensions of travel and family. She stops for a coughing fit that brings up blood. Over the next few hours her health will disintegrate under the horrified eyes of her husband, Oliver, until a short time later she finds herself in a hospital in New Hampshire undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. Charles Bock drops us so abruptly into his new novel, "Alice & Oliver," that the opening pages replicate in the reader the breathless shock of healthy young Alice's sudden illness. "Alice & Oliver" is Bock's second novel, and a very different beast from his 2008 debut, "Beautiful Children." That book was a maximalist epic seemingly written under the influence of David Foster Wallace; today, it feels like a product of its era, with its Las Vegas manufactured from the stuff of adolescent geekery - slot machines, junk food, pornography, cartoonists, pill-popping teenagers, a stripper whose nipples double as candles, even a gruesome scene involving a pregnant cough-syrup-addicted homeless teenager with a clitoral piercing that requires attention. Bock takes a hawk's-eye view of his characters, hovering over one or the other for long stretches, withholding his sympathies from the most obviously sympathetic, like the parents of a lost 12-year-old boy and the unbelievably jerkish 12-year-old himself. Yet he moves the reader with unexpectedly tender portraits of some of the peripheral characters, notably a vampire-like homeless boy called Lestat and Cheri Blossom, the flammable stripper. Bock's new book is more muted, perhaps because it is based on events that actually happened to him and his first wife, Diana Joy Colbert, whose death from leukemia (after a two-and-a-half-year battle) left Bock a single parent of their young daughter. The narrative's medical experience feels dynamic and lived; the book's greatest strength lies in the clarity with which Alice's disease unfolds, and the most touching bits are a series of stand-alone case studies of the patients Alice and Oliver encounter briefly in the hospital. While novelists retain few rights after their books hit readers' hands, the one inviolable right is to never be conflated with anyone in their books, neither characters nor narrators nor speakers. This is true even though readers are often tempted into a kind of reflexive autobiographical sleuthing by the mere existence of author photos and interviews. Bock's book is a fiction - Oliver and Alice are not the reallife Charles and Diana - yet this novel is intended to be read in the light reflected back on it by autobiography. There has been a concerted effort by Bock and his publishers alike to call attention to the facts behind the fiction: in the jacket copy, the acknowledgments, media appearances, and a conversation with the novelist Tom Perrotta that was prominent in advance reading copies and now serves on Bock's website as a reader's guide. "For this novel to be any good," Bock tells him, "I knew it would have to stand up as its own experience. Characters would have to stand on their own feet and have their own organic relationships with one another, form their own connections with a reader." Here readers of "Alice & Oliver" may run into trouble, as the characters often seem to be static accretions of characteristics rather than fully developed people. Alice is defined by her love for her child, some evoked elements of her pseudo-Buddhism (skull beads, mantras, the hippie-dippie healer she imports into the city to lead her in yoga and tisanes), and her professional life in fashion, which manifests for most of the book as a fixation on boots. We don't get to see her as a human being with any depth until the book shifts into Alice's first-person narration, deep in its second half. For his part, Oliver is reduced to humorless smirking and anger, while his back story and career as a software developer are so approximate that one winces to learn that his business is called Generii. And even granting that it's hard to write personality into preverbal babies, it doesn't help that Bock repeatedly likens Alice and Oliver's daughter, Doe, to a doll. The most pivotal element in the book - the relationship between Alice and Oliver - is mainly implied by a series of cringeworthy endearments, the verbal equivalent of a sloppy public display of affection: "Tu esta mi favorito," they say to each other through their tears. It's no spoiler to say there will be infidelity, which has become a reflexive choice for contemporary authors who write about marriage; it is doubly a shame because despite the shopworn plot element, if the characters had felt real, the combination of faithlessness and mortal illness could have had thrilling moral implications. But when characters are sketches with underdeveloped relationships, the losses they experience can't exert an emotional hold on the reader, who can't follow them into their guilt or their bouts of weeping. WHEN A NOVEL is drawn from awful events in the writer's own life, a reviewer can find herself on a wobbly bridge strung between her duty to be honest on behalf of the potential reader, and the ethical imperative to avoid hurting a person who has already suffered so much. The common critical pretense that a book stands alone, divorced from its creator, can only crumble under the autobiographical claim that Bock makes on this text. The audience is being asked to read "Alice & Oliver" two ways, both as fiction and as fictionalized autobiography; but most of the book's emotional work is occasioned not by the text but by the context. This can feel manipulative. Remove the autobiography and the book seems drained, wan, the characters ghosts, the love between them rarely more than shorthand. If many of the aesthetic choices are weary or wearying, Bock's exhaustion is understandable: The effort to write this book must have been overwhelming. It is a novel in the form of a boulder that had been blocking Bock's path, which he has moved only through the painful daily work of writing. "Alice & Oliver" will find its most appreciative audience among people suffering from sudden health crises who want to feel less alone in their terror and confusion; it will be dear to anybody who loves Charles Bock, who surely needed to write it. But as a writing teacher of mine once said, very gently, to a student who handed in work formed out of the rough stuff of her life, "That it happened doesn't make it true." By this, she meant that good fiction comes out of the author's artistry. The real things to celebrate with the publication of "Alice & Oliver" are Bock's superhuman efforts to write a story that must have seemed so large it blocked out all of the light, and all of the books in this talented author's future that are now free to come into view.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 3, 2016]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Best-selling Bock (Beautiful Children, 2008) presents a nail-biting suspense novel that plunges headfirst into a terrifying circumstance that sends a beautiful, vibrant young mother's life into a tailspin. The villain is cancer. Its prey, Alice Culvert, is still nursing the infant daughter that both she and husband Oliver adore. As a fashionista and a tech entrepreneur living in a loft in a pre-gentrified West Village neighborhood during the mid-1990s, this couple is très trendy and deeply in love. They are in that enchanting honeymoon phase of brand-new parenthood, and the last thing they expect is to grapple with mortality. Maybe worse, if not at least more challenging, than the concept of mortality is dealing with the idiosyncrasies of the American health-care system. Bock doesn't pussyfoot. The story inspired by his own experience when his young wife was diagnosed with leukemia bares all, from routine annoyances and major frustrations to the caring, competent professionals and staff who operate within a flawed system. The characters of Alice and Oliver are flawed, too, but also loving and memorable. Bock tells a tale that holds a penetrating mirror to our worst fears in a way that fascinates even as it frightens.--Chavez, Donna Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

"Cancer is a hell of a disease," Alice and her husband, Oliver, are told by a doctor early on in Alice's diagnosis in this articulate excavation of the emotional, physical, and intellectual effects of terminal illness. Through this novel, Bock (Beautiful Children) has, by and large, translated much of his own experience of tending to his late wife-who, like Alice, was diagnosed with leukemia when their daughter was an infant. The result is a spellbinding book, pulsating with life and reminding the reader on every page that even when everything is as awful as it could possibly be, life itself is always a curious thing. Interspersed throughout the first two-thirds of the novel are occasional "Case Studies," detached profiles of fellow patients receiving chemo, which provide a formal, almost surreal counterbalance to the intense humanity of Alice's sickness. Though it could have been worthwhile, this device peters out before it can add much depth. But overall, this book overcomes the standard clichés to provide a beautiful, complex portrait of a family in crisis. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Readers will fall in love with Alice -Culvert from the moment she bounces onto the page, baby strapped to her chest, cotton skirt swirling around her knee-high leather boots, and coffee in her hand. Strong yet vulnerable, she's a woman on a mission, and when she convulses in a wet, nerve-wracking cough, Bock (Beautiful Children) envelops us in a sense of foreboding. Through the eyes of those who care for Alice-husband Oliver, best friend Tilda, take-charge mom, and various New Age gurus-a picture emerges of a woman powered by a ferocious love for her daughter who refuses to be cowed by a leukemia diagnosis and pending bone-marrow transplant. Bock does not shy away from the horrible indignities concomitant with Alice's treatments, circa 1993 and a world away from today's latest protocols. Most impressive is the way the author deals so forthrightly with Oliver's difficult role as caretaker, juggling his own needs with those of his wife, his child, and his fledgling business. VERDICT Informed by his own wife's illness and death, Bock's novel is a searingly honest, wryly funny, deeply loving tribute to those facing mortality and struggling through the maze of health insurance and treatment options while trying to hold on to their humanity. [See Prepub Alert, 10/26/15.]-Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A literary novel about cancer and the way a husband and wife try to survive. Alice is sick. Leukemia. She and her husband, Oliver, once lived in the New York world of "important gallery openings, industry parties, [and] runway shows," but no longer; now, they navigate chemo and health care and fret about their young daughter growing up without a mother. Alice and Oliver decide to approach the situation with, as they put it, blinders on, trying only to handle each new day. A good strategyuntil it drives them into their own heads, breaking down communication and isolating them from each other. Heavy stuff, and Bock (Beautiful Children, 2008) understands his material well, as he went through this sad experience with his own wife. In a way, this novel feels critic-proof: who would dare nitpick a work of such authorial catharsis? Stories that use illness as the primary plot engine can invite skepticism. Every reader inherently sympathizes, so the author may have to do less work on the nuance end of things. But Bock's real act of genius is to start with the cancer, to develop his characters in the shadow of the diagnosis, and then, as the book goes on, to grow the story around the cancer; as family and friends begin showing up to provide sympathy (Alice is skeptical: "All these people got to feel a little better about themselves, and feel sorry for her, and then leave and go on with their normal lives"), we learn more about Alice and Oliver, about their lives. The illness doesn't interrupt humanity; humanity grows from the illness, which is a narrative strategy that makes the book one of the most moving in recent memory. A stunning book about Alice and Oliver, yes, but also about the way illness shatters us all. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1993 There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked. This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making her way down West Thirteenth. Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders. The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time. She drank coffee from a paper cup. Sweat bubbled from her neck. Her scarf kept unraveling. She was rocking knee-­high boots--­sensuous leather, complicated buckles. Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal. But she was slowing. A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her. Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody. This couldn't happen. Thanksgiving plans in Vermont had been set for too long; her mother was insane to see the Blueberry. And an extended weekend at Mom's, with pecan cobbler and free round-­the-­clock childcare, trumped whatever bug she'd caught this time. She'd just have to swallow it, pretend her usual zazz hadn't been absent for the last week, throbs weren't emanating from her temples. This was adulthood, honeysuckle. You soldiered on. She was going to be on time, meeting Oliver at the rental car place. Alice regularly picked up winter coughs like they were sample swatches; she'd spent all afternoon batting that lozenge back and forth between her cheeks (the ground strokes lazy, the rally unending), hacking through the last of her chores (folding T-­shirts into her knapsack, making sure the baby bag was loaded with Wet-­Naps). Out of their apartment, down the front steps, everything had been ginger. Right until the coughing, three increasingly violent retches. The jewel of phlegm--­its hue the light pink of a rose pearl--­was probably nothing but saliva and coloring dye number five. Just goopy residue from the cherry cough drop. The rental agency was on the rim of the West Village, usually a five-­minute walk, ten with the baby strapped to her. It took Alice half an hour. A rust-­colored Taurus was waiting out in front, its driver's door open. Oliver stood on the side, making sure the suited agent documented every last ding. "Jesus," he said. "Honey." He felt her forehead. "You all right?" She answered: "Can you take Doe?" Then they were emerging from the scrum of the city, into the bumper-­to-­bumper hell clogging every inch from Bridgeport to New Haven. Oliver kept blasting heat through the front compartment. No matter how many blankets Alice wrapped around herself, those weird cold sweats wouldn't stop. If anything, she felt worse, the chill deep inside her bones. Now, nearing the western border of Massachusetts, they sped down one of those empty rural interstates, tall barren trees looming dark on either side. Alice's voice quivered: "Could you pull over please?" Oliver veered into the first roadside rest area he saw, the lights of its parking lot distended and spooky. It's nothing, she assured herself, again. She lowered her seat all the way down, her body following the tight collapse as if her own internal gears and stopgaps had also received permission to give way. The sensation went beyond a mental or physical recognition of her exhaustion: she fell back and lay still in the collapsed seat and shut her eyes. For a time, inside the house that was her body, it was as if she were walking out of every room and turning off the lights behind her, one by one. Dimly, Alice was aware of tiny limbs readjusting inside the baby seat, the Blueberry letting out a contented, somnolent breath. She was aware of her husband forcing himself to sound calm, asking: "Favorito?" Instead of answering, Alice recalibrated, focusing on the pulse behind her eyes, the labored rise and fall of her chest, how much effort it was taking her to inhale. Her weariness so intense now it ached. "It's okay," she was told, the sweetest whisper. Alice moved ­toward its kiss. It was not encouraging that her lips were a light purple. "Could be an early indicator of anemia. Could be something else." Dr. Glenn trailed off. Instead of indicating what that something else might be, he continued with the task at hand, shifting the small steel disk along the upper part of Alice's back, his concentration resolute, his movements precise, as if placing the stethoscope piece in the wrong location might set off an explosion. "Deep breaths," he said. "Whatever you can do is fine." She kept looking at the pink goo (wrapped in tissue paper, sealed inside a plastic sandwich bag, ignored on the instrument table). The doctor wrote something in his folder, removed the stethoscope buds from his ears. Alice'd known him since girlhood, but, in the years since she'd last visited his family practice, he'd gone almost bald, just a few white cottony tufts left sprouting around his ears. A crescent of mustard from his lunch still smeared the corner of his mouth. He used to enter this same exam room and point his finger at her as if it were a gun--­Alice was barely a teen when she'd first dismissed him: the kind of lightweight who knew he was being an ass but still acted that way. Who actually chose to spend his life flirting with middle-­aged earth mothers, jamming rectal thermometers into their entitled kids? Life of the party in a small hippie town. Presently he looked up from Alice's folder. "I don't like your temperature and blood pressure so low. Not with this lip color. And what you were telling me about no appetite, the lack of energy." At once serious as a Protestant but trying to be kind, the doctor leveled his gaze, made sure he conveyed a point. "We're going to X-­ray your lungs." To his nurse he added, "I'll want some blood." "What's going on?" Alice said. Fear rushed through her; she felt her chin collapsing. "What's wrong?" Minutes dragged, then disappeared, time flushing itself into a black hole. Finally, that nice old doctor reappeared, but when he entered the room, he moved with purpose, heading directly to Alice, kneeling in front of her. He touched her knee, looked into her eyes. His face was already in mourning. "We have to get you to a hospital right now." Next to the exam table, Oliver Culvert had the baby cradled against his chest. He kept rocking the little one--­babies sensed tension, Alice must have told him this a zillion times. Oliver was not one for sentiment--­the saccharine of pop songs and greeting cards repulsed him, demonstrative emotional reactions making him freeze like a scared lizard. His natural response to most things was self-­consciousness: How am I supposed to feel? Now he watched his wife's eyes enlarging, saw the fear across her face. The doctor continued, saying one awful phrase after another: you are very ill, this is a grave danger, your white blood cell count . . . Sick recognition spread through Oliver's stomach. He had one thought: No. Then he did his best to get beyond himself, and asked the doctor if he could slow down, could he please explain this again. Bureaucrats and medical personnel were shuffling in and out of the room. Oliver had the presence of mind to back away, giving them space to work. His back grazed the far wall, he made sure to hold Doe properly--­protecting his child. That was the least he could do. Take care of the small things. Except the small things didn't turn out to be simple. Just putting Alice in the rental car and hightailing her to the nearest hospital wasn't an option, it so happened. "Do you understand," Doc Glenn said to Alice, "you are in the thrall of a neutropenic fever?" Tearing eyes looked at the doctor like he was insane. "Of course I don't understand," Alice answered. "For all practical purposes," the doctor said, "your body can't protect itself from anything right now." She urged Oliver to ignore the old man, "drive us straight back to the city--­our people are there, they can help with whatever needs helping." In response the doctor let Oliver know that, in his professional opinion, Alice would not make it back to Manhattan alive. "We have to have an ambulance anyway," Oliver thought out loud. "Can't the same paramedic just stand over and care for Alice all the way back to the city?" Oliver volunteered to foot the bill for the mileage costs, then nodded through the doctor's administrative blarney--­the drive being a nonemergency, elective use of an ambulance probably not covered by insurance as an in-­network cost. Like he knew or cared what any of it meant. Oliver pressed further. Calls were made. But even if one of the Manhattan hospitals covered by Alice's insurance plan had an available bed--­which they didn't, but even if they had--­none of those wards would accept a body with almost no white blood cells after six straight hours on the road. Frustrating as this clusterfuck was, Oliver--­like many of his programming peers and former grad school classmates--­had spent huge swaths of his adult life devoted to logical progressions, the evolutionary dances of trial and error that went into problem solving. So, yes, he felt the urge to lash out, punch something solid. But he also understood that every reason something couldn't work provided more information, another small jigsaw piece, the borders and edges gradually filling, a cumulative suggestion developing. This is happening, he told himself. Whether it feels surreal, or melodramatic, or whatever, this is happening. Now two men in dark uniforms angled the stretcher, making sure Alice's legs were raised higher than her head so that the blood would flow toward her brain. "Precautionary measure," explained the bulkier paramedic, whose responsibilities seemed to include talking to Alice. "Keeps patients from going into pulmonary shock." That's really a possibility? Oliver started to ask. The question stalled in his throat. Its answer was apparent in the black stabilizing straps being buckled tight across his wife's chest, the secondary set constricting her thighs, the exam room now crowded and jostling and serious. The paramedics were counting to one another, one two tres; Alice was looking up, searching, her face pale, waxy. Her eyes were red and brimmed with tears. Now she locked in on him. He would never forget those contractions, Alice taken by pain so encompassing as to be frightening, this highly functioning adult--­this woman he loved so much (he felt his love throbbing inside each of his heart's four chambers)--­reverting back to her mammalian origins, making horrible, primal sounds, the totality of her being committed, shrieking. Oliver was freaked, admittedly, and self-­conscious to the extreme, but he absorbed the shooting pain from his wife's grip, and squeezed her hand in return; he breathed in tandem with her, and the contractions continued, and, on count, she pushed with all she had (pushpushpush, breathe, pushpushpush), and his gaze remained trained on her spread legs, making for damned sure that he was watching every second. Why had nobody told him he needed to watch and stay trained, why had he needed to figure this out for himself? Only after each contraction receded, when the baby was that much closer but not yet crowned, when they had a minute or whatever to recover and get ready for the next push, only then had Oliver looked back up at his wife's face; still continuing to count, still breathing in tandem, he'd used his free hand to pat her sweaty brow, repeating just how beautiful she was, how great she was doing. This time her grip wasn't crushing the long bones of his fingers. Rather, she was clasping his fingertips. When this became too difficult, she was hanging on to the edge of his coat, holding its seam between her thumb and pinkie. Oliver still had the warm bundle of their daughter on his chest. He leaned down. Alice had just begun losing the pregnancy weight from her cheeks and chin. "I can't believe how much I want to fuck you right now," he whispered. She coughed out the laugh he wanted. But by then the paramedics were lifting her, she had to let go of his sleeve. For an instant her arm remained hanging, outstretched. She looked back at him, her eyes huge. Shielding his daughter from the sight of Mommy being wheeled out of the room, Oliver shouted, "Don't worry about anything." He rocked the baby to his chest, promised, "We're right behind you. We're with you." His wife was receding, down the hall, toward an ambulance, away from him. "We're in your heart," Oliver shouted. "We'll beat you there, I bet," his screams almost gleeful. "We love you so much. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH." Excerpted from Alice and Oliver: A Novel by Charles Bock All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.