Alice and Oliver – A Contemporary Tragedy

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Charles Bock has written a fine autobiographical family novel about cancer.  Specifically Alice and Oliver tells the story of what happens to a family after the young mother’s abrupt diagnosis of cancer.  There is an overwhelming sadness to this book, but a lot of other things are going on as well.  This  young family has taken good health and good fortune for granted.  They leave an optimistic life.  Suddenly everything changes, and nothing will ever be quite the same.   Alice is always ill, and Oliver is confronted with enormous,  unanticipated responsibility.  Life wasn’t supposed to be this way.  In addition to taking care of his wife and child, he struggles to keep his business afloat and figure out how to pay for his wife’s astronomical medical expenses.  This isn’t a story where everyone rises to the occasion and the sick and healthy spouses continue as before, except with increased adoration and nurturing.  This couple is shell shocked and utterly unprepared.  In many ways they take independent paths and aren’t always kind for each other, even as they doggedly pursue a cure.

The appeal of Alice and Oliver is twofold.  First, the author repeatedly looks at the situation from both the wife and the husband’s point of view.  Secondly, these are flawed and immature young adults who are both terrified and resentful at suddenly have to grow up and get serious.  They don’t always get it right.  Sometimes muddling through is the best you can do.

Charles Bock’s first wife died after suffering from cancer for two-and-a-half years.  She left a young child who wouldn’t remember her and a bewildered, grieving husband.  In Alice and Oliver, Bock addresses his family’s story through a novel.  His efforts to show what his wife was feeling through this ordeal are bolstered by some diary-like pieces she wrote while she was ill.  Questioning Oliver’s behavior, as well as the way Bock elects to present it is one of the puzzles presented by this intriguing yet very sad book.

This is far from a feel-good novel, but I do recommend it for its thoughtful presentation of human behavior under stress.

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