Alice Bliss

Image of Alice Bliss
Release Date: 
May 29, 2012
Penguin Books Ltd
Reviewed by: 

Alice Bliss . . . adroitly illustrates the burden of war, not only on those deployed, but also on those left behind.”

Alice Bliss is actually a family story—one in which each member and/or friend contributes in a very substantial way to the development of the plot.

The central figure is Matt Bliss. He is mostly known through flashbacks as an endearing, devoted dad. He trusts, he teaches, and he lets daughter Alice go her own way—much to the distress of her mother, Angie.

After Matt is deployed to Iraq, the family loses its sea legs, especially Angie, who comes across simply as a distracted mother, too busy about her work to do any cooking or other domestic chores—but that’s just first impressions.

Ellie, age eight, is the younger sister—still cute and cuddly, and discovering new vocabulary words all the time. (Keep a dictionary handy, reader.)

Of all the characters, Grandma Bird is the rock, the one who reinvents herself after her husband dies, and steps in where needed as a provider of strength, a compassionate ear, and an organizing eye. She always emerges at the right time with a reassuring “we’ll get through this dontcha worry” ’tude.

Then there is Alice, the adolescent protagonist, whose bond with Dad is the strongest, while her relationship with her mom is a kind of classic mother/daughter daily drama-rama. These two adults have created a strong willed daughter who appropriately pushes the envelope yet manages to show remarkable maturity in caring for her younger sister, cooking, and doing laundry. Uncle Eddy steps in to try to fill Dad’s shoes by teaching Alice how to drive and supporting his sister, Angie, in every way he is capable. And interestingly, Alice seems most grown up when adults are teaching her grown-up things: Dad’s carpentry and gardening (much of which she remembers in flashback), Uncle Eddy’s driving instruction.

Author Harrington skillfully captures the inconsistencies of adolescence: taking unnecessary risks, being ambivalent regarding the opposite sex, possessing a great sense of humor yet acting oh-so-sullen, unable to communicate with adults—unless they want something, of course.

Much of this adolescent wishy-washyness is played out in dialogue between Alice and Henry, Alice’s neighbor and steadfast friend since childhood. Henry is a geeky, jazz-loving guy who, in his own way, is both solid and a real wuss.

A second theme—that of change—emerges and reemerges as these two adolescents speak to each other. “Why the hell does everything have to change all the time?” And change comes in many forms in this story, in the shapes of unknowns, things one has never had to handle before, even loss: “I don’t want to lose one more thing.” Indeed, much of Alice Bliss is dialogue driven—a clear reflection of the author’s experience in the theater.

The writing gains strength as the story builds and heightens in drama as we get to know the characters better. The second half of Alice Bliss gathers momentum as the interactions within the family, between the angsty teenagers, and among the elders lead to a welcome though unexpected turnaround in one of the main characters’ powers of insight and compassion.

Alice Bliss also adroitly illustrates the burden of war, not only on those deployed, but also on those left behind. And without saying so explicitly, it raises the question of what we, as a nation, are doing to support those families who remain at home while the loved one goes to war.

Realistic in its portrayal of family dynamics, community life, and response to major life events, the story of Alice Bliss would be a helpful read for families whose loved one(s) are deployed.