Charles Bock's novel Alice & Oliver was, coincidentally, the second book I'd read in a row where one of the central characters — a young, New York woman in each case — is diagnosed with cancer early in the story. But although both Alice & Oliver and Kristopher Jansma's Why We Came to the City are powerful, beautifully written novels, they differ quite considerably in theme and scope. Why We Came to the City is a sweeping, epic tale, where New York City is one of the main characters, Alice & Oliver focuses on the relationship of the two titular characters. Bock's book is often moving and never maudlin, and although many of its 400-odd pages address the intricacies of US health insurance, it is done in an extremely engaging and tender way.
The novel opens in the early 1990s. Alice and Oliver Culvert are very happy together. They have a six-month-old daughter, Doe; Alice works in fashion, Oliver owns a small tech start-up. Life is good. But then Alice is taken ill on a Thanksgiving trip to Vermont and after a medical examination reveals some troubling results, including a dangerously low white blood cell count, she is rushed to hospital in Dartmouth and, eventually, diagnosed with leukaemia.
It is too risky at first for her to be allowed to return to Manhattan but even after she is discharged and allowed to return home, the challenges of dealing with a serious illness, at the same time as being a good mother and wife, are only just beginning. While Alice battles with cancer, Oliver must battle with the insurance company. They are insured, to some extent, but hospital stays and leukaemia treatments are expensive, and they could reach their limit within months, leaving the young couple personally liable for huge bills.
In the wrong hands, this story could easily become overwrought and mawkish, but Bock's Alice and Oliver are interesting and unique central characters. Their deep love for each other radiates from every page, and even on the darkest of occasions, Alice never loses her sense of humour. "Wait until you read the book I'm going to do," she says after losing three pounds post-chemo. "The Chemo Diet. Women will be lining up for chemotherapy." Not that Bock shies away from visceral descriptions of Alice's cancer-ravaged body either. She wants more than anything to survive—to be able to raise her daughter—but she wants Oliver to still find her attractive, and no matter how often she tells herself to "appreciate the now", it is difficult to avoid pursuing the past and pining for an already-lost future.
At times, Alice & Oliver is a little gruelling, but it is also compelling and compassionate. And although it is, technically, about a woman's battle with cancer, it is at its core, a warm and thoughtful love story about a couple who happen to be dealing with cancer.
Disclaimer: Alice & Oliver will be published by Random House in April 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.