Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Publisher: Pamela Dorfman Books
Published Date: June 2, 2011
ISBN: 978-0670022786
Pages: 320
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary: When Alice learns that her father, Matt Bliss, is being deployed to Iraq she’s heartbroken. Alice idolizes her dad, working beside him in their garden, accompanying him on the occasional roofing job, playing baseball. After Matt ships out, her mother begins to crumble under the pressure of suddenly being a single parent and Alice struggles to fill the void as she balances the drama of adolescence with the effort of keeping her family together. But Alice is supported by a safety net strung with relationships, including almost boyfriends, a grandmother, a baker with too many children, her track coach, her kid sister, her Uncle Eddie, and even her well meaning but complicated mom. She will learn to drive, plant her father’s garden, and fall in love, all while trying to be strong for her mother, and take care of her precocious little sister, Ellie. But the smell of Matt is starting to fade from his blue shirt that Alice wears everyday and his infrequent phone calls are never long enough.

Alice Bliss is a profoundly moving coming-of-age novel about love and its many variations: the support of a small town looking after its own; love between an absent father and his daughter; complicated love between an adolescent girl and her mother; and an exploration of new love with the boy-next-door. These characters’ struggles amidst uncertain times echo our own, lending the novel an immediacy and poignancy that is both relevant and real. At once universal and very personal, Alice Bliss is a transforming story about those who are left at home during wartime, and a teenage girl bravely facing the future.

My Thoughts: I read a few reviews of Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington and thought it sounded like an interesting book with a young adult main character. I came across a post on Dawn's blog, She is Too Fond of Books that grabbed my attention. Laura Harrington, the author of Alice Bliss wanted to send her book on an around-the-world adventure by means of BookCrossing.com. I loved the idea and signed up! When I received a copy of Alice Bliss with a BookCrossing bookplate attached, I registered the book at BookCrossing and received an ID number. Now that I've read and reviewed Alice Bliss, I will "release" my copy later this week or early next week in a public place such as a doctor's waiting room or Starbuck's. My hope is that another reader will pick up Alice Bliss, register where they found it on BookCrossing and, after they read it, will release it themselves. I'm looking forward to being able to 'watch' the journey the book takes around-the-world!

I admit that my initial interest in Alice Bliss was Laura Harrington's idea to share the book around-the-world. I thought the book sounded good but I honestly didn't pay a lot of attention to the story. I certainly wasn't expecting the exceptional reading experience I had with Alice Bliss. The coming-of-age storyline, universal, terrific themes and wonderfully human, flawed characters made for a great book.  Ms. Harrington has written a beautiful, poignant and engaging story that you don't want to miss.

Alice Bliss, at 15-years old, is the oldest of two girls in the Bliss family, a normal American family living in a small town in upstate New York. Ellie is Alice's 8-year old sister, quirky, adorable and lovable. Angie and Matt are her mom and dad. Angie and Matt are very much in love, although very different people along the mode of "opposites attract".  Alice is a good kid but she's in that awkward, uncomfortable and confusing stage between little girl and young woman when her hormones and emotions are in constant flux, wreaking havoc on her poor body which feels to Alice like it belongs to a stranger.

Alice adores her father and is very similar to him. Spending time with Matt doing any of the many things he likes to do, including gardening, tossing a baseball around or working in his workshop is where Alice can usually be found.  She has a cantankerous relationship with her mother. They don't seem to understand each other at all and have many issues to work out. The Bliss family is rounded out by a nutty, fun-loving, large Uncle Eddie, Angie's brother whom Alice adores, and Angie's mother, Penelope Pearl Bird or Gram, who owns The Bird Sisters coffee shop in town. The one other character I cannot forget to mention is Alice's best friend and possibly more, Henry. Henry Grover lives down the street from Alice, has been a part of her life since they were small children and is an intelligent, quirky and delightful boy.

Matt enlisted in the army reserves much to his wife's displeasure and inability to understand. When his unit is called up suddenly as part of a fast-track "high quality, hurry up, move 'em out training", no member of the Bliss family is prepared or happy about it, least of all Alice. How she copes with her father's absence while grappling with the confusing changes and conundrums of growing up, and struggling to make sense of it, provides for a powerful, touching and sometimes funny storyline. It was difficult not being able to whisper kind words in Alice's ear to let her know she's not alone or to sit beside her and share her pain (she's not the hugging type at this stage!) while reading about her days.

Alice Bliss is written from the third-person point of view but it feels very much like Alice's story. There are no chapters, instead sections in the book are delineated by dates, as if we are reading a journal. This made the story feel even more like Alice's because diaries and journals are often kept by girls. Additionally, much of the book is about Alice and her daily life during the 6 - 9 months we're privileged to spend with Alice and the Bliss family.  I really liked that Ms. Harrington chose to use dates rather than chapters to mark the progress of the story because it felt more personal and intimate as if we were spending each day with Alice and her family while they coped with Matt's absence.  I enjoyed being able to keep track of Alice's daily life, ee her progress and anticipate and know when important events were coming up in her life.

Whether or not you feel this is primarily Alice's story, there's no doubt she's the star character. Ms. Harrington's book is filled with well-developed, very human characters who help to make this book a terrific reading experience but Alice stands out. She's a remarkable, terrific girl and/or young woman who leaps  off the page and into your heart.  Intelligent, funny, sweet and thoughtful, she can also be stubborn, irascible, and, sometimes, selfish. Alice's character bounces between the little girl she's been and the young, mature woman she's on her way to becoming, demonstrating, clearly, the puzzling, self-conscious and difficult time Alice is having right now and the varied, extreme feelings all the changes provoke in her.

Ms. Harrington does an amazing job of showing us, clearly, that Alice is in that difficult stage all adolescent girls go through when, not only are their bodies changing in disturbing ways, but their hormones, emotions and thoughts are as well. Like so many young women around her age, Alice is childish and immature one minute and wise beyond her years the next. Ms. Harrington portrays this dichotomy in Alice best when she's struggling to cope with her father's absence and her feelings towards Henry. At every turn, I loved Alice and sharing this journey with her. She's by far one of my favorite characters.

Alice being the primary character in Alice Bliss  is partly why I felt this was her story. The relationship Alice has with her mother, Angie, also made me feel this way. Almost every time they speak or encounter one another, they clash and misunderstand each other. I was slightly confused while reading scenes between Angie and Alice because, very often, Alice felt more mature than Angie. Angie was easily irritated by Alice and often didn't seem to try to get along with her behaving morelike a friend than a mother. Angie even acted envious of Alice's relationship with her father. It was difficult to like Angie at all in the first third of this book.

As the story progressed and I began to see that this was mostly Alice's story, I understood the scenes between Alice and Angie better, especially when looked at from Alice's point of view . It was clear to me that most of what happened in this book was primarily Alice view of how things occurred. Few teenage girls portray their mothers in positive light so when viewed from Alice's perspective, it made sense that Angie seemed selfish, immature and unkind much of the time. In a few scenes in which Angie's alone, we get some insight into her character.  These scenes clarifiy that Angie isn't as selfish, unkind and thoughtless as she sometimes appears to be. We also saw what a tough time she's having coping with Matt's absence and Alice growing up. Angie is portrayed as a very flawed human being and not always the best mother but I don't think we were given a totally well-rounded picture of Angie. If there's any 'problem' I had with Alice Bliss it's that I would have liked to know Angie better and to know more about her relationship with Alice. What I did see of Angie with Alice made me feel enormous sympathy for mothers of teenage girls!

Laura Harrington has written a beautiful, stunning and absorbing book about a young girl maturing into a young woman while coping with the inevitable problems that life throws at us. At the same time, she's dealing with her relationships with family and friends that change as we change. Ms. Harrington has given us a book with themes relevant for life in our society today when many families are trying to deal with the absence of a loved one in the military. Alice Bliss is a fantastic book for mothers of a teenage girl, for families who have a loved one in the army, navy or air force and for any reader who loves books with terrific characters and a heart-warming, powerful story of love, loss, family, growing up and hope.

Laura Harrington's Website and Blog


Thank you to Pamela Dorfman Books at Viking for a copy of Alice Bliss to read and review.


  1. This sounds like a beautiful coming of age story. I love the author's Book Crossing idea and will be watching it with interest.

  2. I brought this home from the library this weekend. So glad to know that you enjoyed it.

  3. I think this is so cool that you received one of the registered Book Crossing copies. (I read about that somewhere).

    I thought this was a very touching read as well. Glad u enjoyed it.

  4. I've heard only good things about this one...

  5. That's a neat idea to release the book into the world and see where it travels. Glad you enjoyed the story.

  6. I could see myself getting caught up in the whole Bookcrossing thing as well. I heard about it but haven't yet participated. Now you make me want to.

    Glad to hear the book was good too!

  7. I had read about the BookCrossing experiment with Alice Bliss and was tempted to sign up. BookCrossing doesn't seem to do well in this area though so I took a pass. I hope to snag the book at our library though. Everyone has been giving it amazing reviews!

  8. I really hadn't paid much attention to this, but I think I'm going to have to add it to my wishlist after this review!
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