Harrington creates a world and cast of characters that grab your heart and don’t let go
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
by SERENA on OCTOBER 12, 2011
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.