"She told herself it was like reading a science fiction story. You simply accept a weird premise, and the rest follows."
At first, the premise of "Alice in Bed" is tough to figure. A beautiful young girl, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, is suddenly and mysteriously, on her way to get a glass of water, struck down; she has excruciating pains in her hips and she can't walk. Meantime, we learn, her family life is in shambles. Her mother and father's marriage is breaking up, her 17-year-old brother, tall and sad, is scuffling through puberty, Alice is trying to be as hard on her father as she can, in order not to provoke the old love they shared when Alice was 9.
As these discombobulations become clear, the assumption of the modern post-Freudian reader is that Alice's hip pain is emotional, psychological, hysterical. Her pain is that of losing a father, growing up. The disorder is a protest against the breakup of family life as she has known it. The modern reader settles back, waiting for Alice to show herself, get out of bed, let the secret out. She does not. Cathleen Schine means for her heroine to spend the duration of the book in bed. Her hips are inflamed, she can't move. Her real hips. It takes Alice a year to get up.
"Alice in Bed," still and all, is about the pain of losing a father and--until she can bear the separation--arranging for substitutes, all kinds of substitutes, doctors mostly. It's a very funny book. Great lines are tossed away. The book moves with a cutting edge, as if through calm waters. Time is a big factor in books set in institutions. Schine handles this element with ease. Time flies, untortured. And anyone who's either been in a hospital for a prolonged period, or watched over someone else who was, will recognize Alice's place of confinement, the helplessness of patients and how hospital life goes on with or without the sick, and how patienthood seems to be, in the end, a fly in the ointment of the medical profession.
Abandoned by her real father, Alice gathers substitutes. There is her orthopedist, the famed Dr. Witherspoons who notes Alice's every symptom except the one she is most aware of, her pain. Pain, for Dr. Witherspoons, is only a side effect. He warns Alice about drug addiction, warns her not to use sleep as a crutch. Dr. Witherspoons is Daddy-as-Instructor. He twists Alice's foot around to see if it hurts. It does. He nods. He is doing it for her own good.
Then there is Dr. Davis, family friend, eye doctor, nearly 60. Dr. Davis caresses Alice's legs, soothes her spasms, brings her violets and mangoes, tells her she's beautiful. Fascinated by Alice's immobility--from the hips down she's Sleeping Beauty--aroused by her helplessness, Dr. Davis seduces Alice. He becomes her lover, sort of. Daddy as romantic figure, with flowers at her feet, has arrived.
Alice's mother brings a weird friend, a pill-popping, money-grubbing hypnotist, with relaxation tapes and esoteric advice. In his sheepskin coat and hat, the hypnotist provokes Alice. He is Daddy as world citizen and exotic presence, a wild man, beyond the reach of the AMA. Alice adores him. He is a charlatan but no matter; many daddies are.
Halfway through the book, Alice has become a complete patient. Her life is the hospital, her body an encyclopedia of symptoms. She watches "General Hospital" and lives between pain shots. Her hips are locked, jammed shut by adhesions. The men are doing her no good. She is sent to another hospital for rehabilitation.
"Rehabilitation is a wonderful thing," her father comes back to announce blithely. "A wonderful thing."
"Alice in Bed" ends swiftly. The end, in fact, once Alice gets up, simply happens. And the book slides by. The swift conclusion might be more appropriate to a short story than a novel. There's a fishtail swish, a bright flash in the water, then no more. But Alice is a slight girl. And "Alice in Bed" lasts as long as it can, given its original premise and setting. More time in bed inevitably would have grown tedious.
Cathleen Schine is a bright and flashy talent. It will be interesting to see where this young writer goes next.