Title: Alice Bliss
Author: Laura Harrington
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the publisher
First line: This is the first time Alice has been allowed to walk back to their campsite from the Kelp Shed alone.
Being a teenage girl, dealing with everything that adolescence, first love, and high school bring, is hard enough – but imagine doing it while worrying about your father, who is serving in Iraq. Alice Bliss adores her father, and is devastated when he leaves for active duty. She tries to hold things together at home, caring for her younger sister, Ellie, while her mother disappears inside her anxiety and grief. With the help of her uncle Eddie, her grandmother, and her best friend, Henry, Alice comes of age while her father is gone.
The novel Alice Bliss began as a one-act, one-woman musical by author and playwright Laura Harrington. When I heard that, I was intrigued to see how the story would transfer into novel form. When I was a theater major, I read a ton of plays, and the experience of reading a play is very different than reading a novel. Other than a few stage directions and brief character descriptions, a script is all dialogue. The world of the play is all up to your imagination. When I started reading Alice Bliss, I expected it to be short on description and setting. I was very wrong.
Laura Harrington is a fantastic storyteller who writes description, setting, and character beautifully – and her dialogue is as good as you would expect from a playwright. As I read, Alice quickly became one of my favorite teenage protagonists – her fierce love of her father allows the reader to come to know Matt as well as if he was present for the entire book, when, in reality, he deploys very close to the beginning of the story. The father-daughter relationship between Matt and Alice is lovely to experience. It was such a joy to witness Alice growing and maturing, trying to come to terms with her father’s absence. She has all the normal experiences of her age: learning to drive, having her first kiss, discovering who she is – but she is doing it while trying to hold her family together.
While this is very much Alice’s story, the other characters are as fully realized as she is. The book isn’t written in first person, so we get to know each of the characters through their interior monologue. The blossoming of the relationship between Alice and her best friend, Henry, was one of the most perfect things about this book. If only every young girl who is missing her father had a Henry in her life! Harrington also does a brilliant job of exploring the prickly relationship that exists between a teenage girl and her mother. Alice needs her mother, Angie, but doesn’t want to. Angie becomes so embroiled in her own anxiety and grief – and anger at Matt for leaving her – that she doesn’t have any emotional strength left to try to understand what Alice is dealing with. As I read, I found myself getting very frustrated with Angie, while at the same time feeling desperately sorry for her. It is truly a testament to Harrington’s writing that I came to care about all of these characters so very deeply.
Alice Bliss is such a timely book. As I read, I couldn’t help but think about all the girls – and boys – here in the US who are worrying for their mothers and fathers in the military. They will need stories to read about people like them, and I believe Alice’s story is an important one. Highly recommended.