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Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington is a coming of age story about a teen girl growing into adulthood at a time when her father, Matt, is sent to Iraq and her mother, Angie, is not dealing with his absence as well as Alice thinks she should.  The blissful life her family has had up until this point is turned around and twisted as Alice takes on more of her mother’s duties — making dinner, washing clothes, getting her sister’s (Ellie) lunch ready, and getting her sister to school.  She’s constantly worried about her father not returning home, about how she seems not to be anyone’s favorite, and the changes she sees in her friends, family, and Henry (her neighbor and friend).

Harrington creates a world and cast of characters that grab your heart and don’t let go.  The Bliss family story will have your tearing up right from the beginning when the father is first setting his affairs in order and explaining to Alice what she’s to do while he is at war.  Yes, he says, he is coming back, but readers know about the uncertainties of war and so does Alice, which makes his parting all the more heart-wrenching.  Alice only finds solace when running, like her mother finds solace when swimming, but they are too alike to find comfort in one another and often find themselves at odds.  Dynamic characters young and old tackle difficult questions of how to go on without a loved one, who often calmed the waters and even when that situation is expected to be temporary.

“This is the first time Alice has been allowed to walk back to their campsite from the Kelp Shed alone.  She is fourteen, barefoot, her sneakers tied together by the laces and slung across her shoulder so she can feel the soft, sandy dust of the single-track road between her toes.  Her sister fell asleep halfway through the square dance, dropping from hyperexcited to unconscious in a flash.  Her father carries Ellie draped over his shoulder, and casually, or so it seems, her mother says, ‘Come home when the dance is done.'” (page 1)

While Alice is a strong, young woman, she is also timid when it comes to her changing relationship with Henry and volatile when it comes to her relationship with her mother and sister and her schoolmates.  Alice’s life spirals out of control while she’s daydreaming and running away, but there are moments of hope when letters arrive and broken up phone calls pepper their days.  Alice is growing up before readers’ eyes.  She’s learning that her friendship with Henry is more complicated than she expects and at a time when she wants it to stay the same.  She’s flattered when a popular senior asks her to a baseball game, and she’s disenchanted with high school society when her childhood friend Steph remains distant even when it is obvious she needs someone to lean on.  Her sister Ellie tries to act more mature than her sister, and does on some occasions, but she’s still just eight and what’s important to her — a new haircut, new clothes, a nice lunch — skirts the realities of their lives without Matt.

Uncle Eddie and Gram are the rocks of the family that help hold up Angie, Alice, and Ellie — keeping them from imploding.  Harrington has created a wide cast of characters who evolve steadily throughout the novel.  Despite the third person omniscient point of view, Harrington’s narrative evokes an emotional connection between the characters and the reader.  The distance often felt with this point of view is not present here in the least.  Readers will feel the loss, the waiting, the anger, the sadness, and the confusion all at once — just as the characters do — while cheering them on to remain positive that Matt will return home.  This is a young adult novel adults will praise for its realistic portrayal of adult themes, while young adults will praise the relate-ability of its teen characters and their situations.

“Even though Mrs. Grover wears those awful sensible shoes and has gray hair that she wears in a bun, Alice thinks that maybe Mrs. Grover is still young in the ways that are important.  Like she’s not so serious all the time, and she sings and right now she’s teasing a cardinal.  Whistling in response to its call and damn if that cardinal doesn’t whistle right back.  Alice’s mother doesn’t even have a clothesline, let alone stand outside and lift her face to the sun and sing and whistle to the birds.” (page 101)

Harrington is talented at creating a world that is real — a small town where everyone knows one another and feels as though they are under a microscope at home and school — and generates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty — in the silence of waiting.  What are those keepsakes that we hold dearest? What are those memories that we hold onto tightest? Alice and her family find these answers and more, making the novel even more suspenseful.  Alice Bliss not only tracks the evolution of Alice from child to adolescence and the bumps along the way, the novel teaches readers about heartache, compassion, and strength.

About the Author:

Laura Harrington’s award winning plays, musicals, operas, and radio plays have been widely produced in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Harrington is a two time winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and a two time winner of the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England for Mercy and Hallowed Ground.

“Alice Bliss”, a novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books, Penguin/ Viking, will be on sale spring 2011. She is currently writing a new novel, “A Catalogue of Birds,” as well as a song cycle with composer Elena Ruehr, and a series of choral works with composer Roger Ames. Ms. Harrington teaches playwriting at M.I.T and is a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard (where she was a visiting Briggs Copeland Lecturer), Wellesley, University of Iowa, and other campuses.

Please also check out this great Q&A, an excerpt from the novel, and her blog.

 

This is my 59th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

 

 

Alice blissI took part in the experiment to see where this book would end up once I read, reviewed, and released it into the world.  So, here’s a picture of me releasing it into the wilds of Maryland (Ok, its a Safeway/Starbucks Cafe).

I toyed with releasing it in a bookstore, at the library among the library sale stacks, and finally decided to release it in the Safeway near my house in their Starbucks Cafe.  It was done surreptitiously and I was incredibly self-conscious.  Nevermind that this is a book I really didn’t want to let go because I loved it so much.

I may just have to buy my own copy of this book to add to my shelves and read it again.  It was THAT GOOD!

 

  • Dawn – She Is Too Fond of Books

    Oh, I loved ALICE BLISS! I released a copy as well, and hope that whoever picked it up was as taken by this novel as I was.

    Thanks for sharing the name of Laura Harrington’s WIP; I feel like I’m in on a little secret 🙂

    • I really loved the novel too and wanted to keep my copy. I was sad to let it go, but I too hope the person who picked it up enjoys it and registers it with Book Crossing.

  • I checked this out form the library and I hope to get it read before it has to go back. I thought about the bookcrossing event but it seems like the few books that have been released in the area just vanish. I would have had to stalk the book to make sure someone picked it up.

    • I hope you get to read it as well. It really is well done.

  • This book is one I’ve seen around quite a bit and would love to read one day. I’m glad you liked it so much Serena.

    • I really loved it and would not have let it into the “wild” if I had not promised to do so…but its good to share great books with others!

  • Meg

    Sounds like a book I would enjoy, and how fun that you released it into the “wild”! I would probably be self-conscious about that, too, but it’s a great idea and lots of fun.

    • you should pick up a copy.

  • Your review has convinced me. Because Booking Daughter is still preferring MG books, she might have to wait another year or so before tackling this book with its issues. However, I’m going to read it and keep it in mind for a future mother/daughter book club pick!

    • I hope you like the book as much as I did. I think it’s a powerful read.

  • Beth F

    Pamela Dorman usually picks winners, doesn’t she??

    I like the idea of releasing it into the wild — Bookcrossings is such a fun idea but I’ve never participated.

    • I think this is my first Pamela Dorman book. I was a reluctant participant in this Book Crossing…I loved the book too much to really want to let it go!

  • Serena, Thank you for this smart and insightful review. I love that you picked up on the 3rd person omniscient narrator but still felt a closeness to the characters.
    And thank you for participating in “Where’s Alice Bliss?”
    Thought I’d weigh in on the question of YA vs adult. Alice Bliss is being marketed to adults with the hope of having a strong cross-over appeal to YA.
    I did go to a mother/daughter book group and the discussion was really wonderful.
    One local High School put Alice Bliss on their summer reading list for all 4 grades.
    My dream would be to have the book adopted for curriculum use. There are still so few female protagonists who are not victims.

    • Ah, so it is adult?! I do see the appeal to both adult and YA audiences, honestly. I would have loved to read this as a kid. I had a friend whose uncle died in the first Iraq War. This would have been appropriate to read even then.

      I wish you luck in getting the book on more summer reading lists or reading lists in general and adopted for curriculum use. I think that would be great. We need more strong female protagonists in literature for younger readers especially.

  • This sounds like an excellent book! You’ll have to let me know if you find out where the book travels when it leaves the Starbucks.

    • I guess that will depend upon who picks it up and if they go on the Book Crossing site 🙂

  • I always love a good coming of age story so I am definitely keeping this one in mind.

    • Stephanie: I think you’d enjoy this one. I really loved it and I don’t normally read YA.

  • I have seen this book, but didn’t realize it was YA until I read your review. I’m sure my daughter would like this, as well as me!

    • It honestly doesn’t read like YA to me. I think any age group would enjoy it and it would be a good pick for mother-daughter book clubs…I think there is a ton to discuss here.

  • Wow, it sounds like this book is fantastic! It sounds like a great story that is well written. The tension in it would keep me flipping the pages.

    • The tension does keep you reading…I wanted to know what happened to Matt. and to the rest of them. It was a touching story and deals with some hard-hitting issues facing families even now.

  • I thought this was a well written coming of age story. Glad u enjoyed it Serena.

    • I really thought this novel was stunning. I really didn’t want to give it up!