Alice & Oliver: A Novel

Alice & Oliver: A Novel

by Charles Bock


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The award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Children has created an unflinching yet deeply humane portrait of a young family’s journey through a medical crisis, laying bare a couple’s love and fears as they fight for everything that’s important to them.

New York, 1993. Alice Culvert is a caring wife, a doting new mother, a loyal friend, and a soulful artist—a fashion designer who wears a baby carrier and haute couture with equal aplomb. In their loft in Manhattan’s gritty Meatpacking District, Alice and her husband, Oliver, are raising their infant daughter, Doe, delighting in the wonders of early parenthood.

Their life together feels so vital and full of promise, which makes Alice’s sudden cancer diagnosis especially staggering. In the span of a single day, the couple’s focus narrows to the basic question of her survival. Though they do their best to remain brave, each faces enormous pressure: Oliver tries to navigate a labyrinthine healthcare system and handle their mounting medical bills; Alice tries to be hopeful as her body turns against her. Bracing themselves for the unthinkable, they must confront the new realities of their marriage, their strengths as partners and flaws as people, how to nourish love against all odds, and what it means to truly care for another person. 

Inspired by the author’s life, Alice & Oliver is a deeply affecting novel written with stunning reserves of compassion, humor, and wisdom. Alice Culvert is an extraordinary character—a woman of incredible heart and spirit—who will remain in memory long after the final page.

Praise for Alice & Oliver

“This hauntingly powerful novel follows a family’s fight for survival in the face of illness. A stirring elegy to a marriage.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“A rewarding reading experience . . . a testament to the resilience of humans and our willingness to forgive.”San Francisco Chronicle

“The novel’s power is in its two characters’ messy negotiation of their fears, errors and shifting affections. . . . Bock offers a forceful reminder that there are plenty of roiling emotions underneath that till-death-do-us-part.”Los Angeles Times

“[A] heart-wrenching story of a young couple whose lives change when Alice gets diagnosed with cancer . . . a refreshingly unsentimental look at the vicious disease.”Entertainment Weekly

Alice & Oliver [has a] tough-minded commitment to truth-telling.”The Washington Post

“Even more than the meticulous details of drugs, treatments and side effects, Bock’s tender portrayal of [his characters] in all their desolation gives [Alice & Oliver] its ring of truth. . . . I loved this novel.”—Marion Winik, Newsday

Alice & Oliver shows that, even in a situation that’s about as terrible as it can be, there can still exist happiness, surprise, and life, that strange strong spirit that’s with us until the end.”The Boston Globe

“The most honest, unsentimentally powerful novel about cancer that I’ve ever read.”—Michael Christie, The Globe & Mail

“Wrenchingly powerful . . . Bock chronicles the daily struggles of a young wife and mother facing her own imminent mortality. This is a soul portrait of a family in crisis, written with a fearless clarity and a deep understanding of the bonds that can hold two people together even in the darkest hour.”—Richard Price

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812980424
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/18/2017
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Charles Bock is the author of the novel Beautiful Children, which was a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book, and which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Slate, as well as in numerous anthologies. He lives with his wife, Leslie Jamison, and his daughter in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


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.”

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