"Love means never having to say you're sorry," went the tagline to Erich Segal's 1970 tear-jerker "Love Story," in which an earnest gent named Oliver tries to support his wife as she — spoiler alert — dies of leukemia. Charles Bock's novel "Alice & Oliver" shares a character name and a disease with "Love Story," but Bock would consider Segal's greeting-card glop only with open contempt. Love, especially when it's tested by illness, means always having something to apologize for. The novel's power is in its two characters' messy negotiation of their fears, errors and shifting affections.
Even so, "Love Story," wouldn't be a half-bad title for the first half of the book. Alice and Oliver are a charmed, devoted couple when we first meet them. It's 1993 in New York, when it was possible to find and rehab a roomy and cheap Meatpacking District apartment, when the miraculous nascent Internet allowed you to download an entire photo "in less time than it took to microwave popcorn," and when you could step into a CD store and hear it "thrumming with minor clicks, like a busy typewriter class."
He's a bright programmer; she's a successful fashion designer; they have a newborn daughter, Doe. Life is so frictionless that they cling to a cuddly optimism even when, early on, Alice's white-blood-cell count is decimated. In the hospital, "they proclaimed themselves fortunate for this astounding relationship of theirs, having as much fun in that stupid room as they had, under such ridiculous conditions."
That love-conquers-all resolve doesn't last long: Once Alice is formally diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an ever-escalating set of complications is set in motion. Alice endures the wearying agony of chemotherapy. Oliver wrestles with healthcare bureaucrats. Both of them white-knuckle a search for a bone-marrow donor. Friends skedaddle because they're afraid to confront Alice's predicament. Or, perhaps worse, they arrive with tone-deaf ideas of what "helping out" is. No, Alice doesn't have the stamina to watch a pirated, pre-release VHS tape of "Pulp Fiction," some buzzed-about film. A friend's gift of an herbal vitamin supplement "was supposed to fill Alice with vitality, but tasted like hot barf."
But the struggle beyond all that, and one that Bock is particularly concerned with getting right, involves the waiting — for doctors to arrive, for insurers to respond to appeals, for the chemo to do its work. In the abstract, cancer creates a sense of urgency. But on the ground, Bock knows, it mostly cultivates slackness. "Alice & Oliver" is at its best as a story about how a couple must develop an internal GPS to recalculate the path through unfamiliar territory, when the things that attract them to each other and the comfort of their routines begin to get scraped away. Alice tries on Buddhism and a flirtation with a musician she meets in the hospital. Oliver throws himself into his work, juggling child care with programming. He has a card for a neighborhood floral shop that promises "exquisite flowers" (read: women) and he's tempted to give it a ring.
The novel's detours into New York's seedier quarters are modest compared to Bock's bracing debut novel, 2008's "Beautiful Children," where the whole trip was occupied by the sordid lives of Las Vegas prostitutes, pornographers and teen runaways. If Alice and Oliver are tamer protagonists, Bock is still interested in what makes us reckless — how we search for escape when our lives are put under too much pressure.
Too much pressure according to whom, though? In this who's-suffering-more-in-the-marriage competition, Alice is the clear winner — she's bearing a host of burdens both internal and external, ones that Oliver's headaches with insurers and his startup can't match. That distinction is especially pronounced in the later chapters, as the point of view shifts to Alice, her psyche rubbed raw in advance of the bone-marrow transplant. "I'm wishing I had a lobotomy," she thinks. "If they'd scooped out my frontal lobe, I wouldn't have to be present for what they're going to do to me." But Bock does give both characters equal emotional depth, the better to explore the Newtonian marital dynamics when Oliver discovers Alice's secrets and she his.
Bock lived through an experience much like the one he depicts here. In 2009 his first wife, Diana Joy Colbert, was diagnosed with leukemia when their daughter was an infant, and Colbert died in 2011 after two bone-marrow transplants. So the authorial fallacy isn't quite so fallacious in this case. But the true-life elements of the novel are meaningful only in terms of the novel's main flaw: If the book avoids wearing its heart on its sleeve the way "Love Story" did (thank goodness), it does sometimes overshare its research. Passages are clotted with notebook-dump detail about chemotherapy medications, the movements of orderlies and nurses and doctors and the logistics of the bone-marrow donor and transplant process. Such details are essential for any novel that aspires to be a realistic portrait of cancer. But at moments the true-life banality of delay and process threatens to infect the lifeblood of the novel itself.
Yet it doesn't give anything away to say that "Alice & Oliver" revivifies in its closing pages and becomes an affecting portrait of how much everybody in Alice's orbit has been emotionally reshaped. From early detection to Stage 4, nobody gets away unchanged by cancer, a point Bock emphasizes in a series of brief "case studies" interspersed though the novel: A man whose jaw is surgically removed, a second-grader who's slipped out of remission, a woman who takes little comfort in pink ribbons after a double mastectomy. "Everyone so great and informed and aware and together and so helpful," that last patient thinks. "Meanwhile, she had to get both of her breasts sawed off."
These vignettes are a potent reminder of the multitude of ways cancer can damage and transform. But they're also a Greek chorus singing the same song: Whose help will you want when you're forced to face your own mortality up close? "My husband" or "my wife" are excellent answers, but Bock offers a forceful reminder that there are plenty of roiling emotions underneath that till-death-do-us-part.
"Alice & Oliver"
Random House: 416 pp., $28
Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.