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 strategy—until 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.