Friday, September 14, 2012

Alice Bliss

by Laura Harrington

Read: September 3-9, 2012
Published: June 2nd 2011 by Pamela Dorman Books 
Source: Library book (now a signed library book!)
Category: Contemporary Fiction - great crossover to Young Adult

I have a confession to make. My daily life is not all that affected by the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don't know anyone personally who is fighting. If something big happens the news reports about it, but I don't think a lot about what is going on in the Middle East. Or what happens to the families that the soldiers leave behind. Alice Bliss is about those families. It's a book that made me start paying attention.

Matt Bliss joined the army reserves years ago because he believes in serving his country, and as an example to his wife Angie and daughters Alice and Ellie. But with the war in Iraq dragging on, men in the reserves are being called to fight. Alice Bliss is 15 and starting her sophomore year of high school when her father gets word that he is being deployed to Iraq. Not only does she have to deal with the concerns of a normal high schooler - first crushes, friends who decide they could do better elsewhere, and a mother who doesn't get her - she is facing the absence of a father she idolizes and tremendous responsibility at home. 

Alice Bliss is the story of how the war affects one fifteen year old girl, in one family, in one small town in America. It is about how life keeps going despite the absence of a family member. And how easily childhood innocence is lost.
  • Once her father leaves, Alice wears his shirt constantly, refusing to wash it. Alice's mother doesn't understand this (in fact it annoys her). But it is a tangible connection that Alice has to her father. The shirt makes her feel safe - and like she can protect him. 
  • Alice's mother struggles to cope without her husband, and most nights Alice cooks dinner because it won't be done otherwise (they have a lot of mac and cheese). 
  • Alice learns to drive, develops her first crush and discovers she loves running after her father leaves. She also struggles to stay interested in school and tries to keep up with her father's projects - like planting the garden and changing the oil.
Everyone knows that Alice's dad is a good person - great even. If anyone can make it back from Iraq, Matt Bliss can. And so they hope. Everyone needs hope. I found myself hoping along with Alice and her family. 

But is that true? Does war discriminate based on what kind of person you are? And if you make it back, will you be the same as you were before? I thought a lot about these questions while reading Alice Bliss. I also sobbed through portions of this story (ugly tears, guys). Although the book is set in 2006 during the current war, much of it felt timeless. I could imagine generations of people hoping for the safe return of their loved ones, and realizing that sometimes they don't come back the same way that they left. 

Laura Harrington is a playwright and Alice Bliss has a lovely, cinematic quality to it, which speaks to that. It is written in third-person present tense, and though the book focuses mostly on Alice's perspective, the point of view rotates between characters. As a reader I felt as if I was watching the story unfold, getting to know characters as they were introduced and visualizing the scene around me. 

The reader gets small details about every single character who is introduced, and I felt like I knew Alice's friends and neighbors in her small town of Belknap, New York (near Rochester). Although it took me a bit of time to get used to the writing style, the way Alice Bliss was written became one of my favorite parts of the novel. I think the story was much more complex because of it. The rotating perspective allowed me to understand for instance, the mindset of Alice's mother and how her father feels about his impending departure (instead of everything filtering from Alice to the reader). Also indicative of a playwright, Ms. Harrington employs a lot of dialogue, which was fun to read, and helped to keep up the pacing of the story. 

Alice Bliss was published as adult fiction, but it is a book that I would recommend to teens as well.  In fact, it was nominated for the 2012 Alex Award, which honors books published for adults that have special appeal for young adults. I even picked the more YA friendly cover for this post, because of that fact.

Love Triangle Factor: N/A - There is a sweet romance with some complications, but I don't want to rate it, because it should not affect whether you read this story or not. (I hope you do choose to read this!)
Rating: 4 stars

Read about my book group's discussion of Alice Bliss with Laura Harrington: HERE


  1. Nice Lauren! You hit upon so many great points from the story and the writing style, not to mention all the important questions for the readers to wrestle with. This was definitely a meaningful read and such an honor to meet and speak with Laura Harrington-something I will remember for a long time!

    1. Thank you dear friend! I completely agree. I didn't expect the book to be that moving. I'm so thankful that Freddie found it!

  2. Lauren, thank you for this thoughtful, smart, beautifully written review. I am so glad that we had a chance to meet!

    1. Thank you! I am so happy to have met you as well. And we'd love to get together again when you've written your next novel.

  3. Ok, I hadn't heard about this one but it sounds like it will be right up my alley. As a military brat I am drawn to books that deal with military themes. Thanks for putting this one on my radar!

    1. Yes, Carrie. I'd be interested in your take if you do read this book.

  4. Ok. Wow. Wow. I need to read this, possibly.

    Alex Award winner, huh? I do LOVE the Alex Awards.

    Also, I love that cover.

    1. It was nominated for the award, didn't win. But I think it is a good book for teens to read, although the third person present narrative is unusual for the genre.

      Yes, nice cover. Though we didn't think the Alice in the book would be wearing a skirt to garden ;).

    2. Actually we also had an interesting discussion on covers and how little say author's have over them.


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