Book Review: Alice Bliss

25Mar13

Life’s been a little nutty. I’m still reading, though–there is always time for that.

This morning, thanks to the snowfall–woo!–and the cancellation of my early meeting–WOO!–you actually get a book review. For a novel I read in February. Facepalm. I’ve decided that, if I don’t finish all my reviews by the end of the quarter, I will simply list them, and start fresh in April.

Today, though, you get Alice Bliss.

alicebliss

Title: Alice Bliss

Author: Laura Harrington

Genre: Fiction, coming-of-age novel, one of those adult novels with a teen character as the protagonist.

Length: 306 pages

Library: Sharpsburg Community Library

Challenge: Peek-a-Book 2013 Women Challenge

Summary: After Matt Bliss is deployed to Iraq, his family–especially his oldest daughter, Alice–starts to fray around the edges.

Analysis

We sometimes forget, as adults, that being a teenager can be very difficult. Your body and brain are swimming with all kinds of chemicals that are helping you grow, but confusing you mightily at the same darned time. You’re trying to figure out who you are and what you think, while at the same time also trying to fit in with a sea of other people trying to figure out who they are and what they think. If you are lucky, you have a loving family and at least one good friend to help you through this.

Alice Bliss has the best dad in the world, and she worships the ground he walks on. Matt is patient, kind, fun, passionately in love with his wife, and devoted to  his children. He’s also devoted to a life of service, though, which means he can’t just sit at home when he could be fighting for freedom in Iraq. And so, much to Alice’s extreme dismay, Matt goes off to war, sending the family into a quiet tailspin that accelerates when Matt is reported missing in action after a firefight.

Grab your Kleenex, folks. This one’s a weeper.

If I sound guarded, it’s simply because you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel for Alice. Just when a girl needs her dad most, to help her navigate the confusing world of driving and boys, he’s not there. And yet, at the same time, he is there, in every tool in the shed, every plant in the garden. It’s agony, both for Alice as well as for Matt’s wife, Angie, who finds herself clashing with her eldest in ways that alarm and frighten her. Without Matt, Angie is weak just when her girls–a precocious little sister, Ellie, rounds out the family–need her most. It doesn’t help that Alice is very much a tomboy, while Angie is more traditionally feminine, which leads to some interesting arguments along the way.

The prose here is gorgeous, lyrical. Set in upstate New York, Alice Bliss glows with the beauty of the natural world, something Matt valued and taught Alice to cherish. The small town in which the Blisses live is someplace you’d want to retire to, quiet, homey, the kind of place where you know the people who bake your bread, and everybody turns out for the 4th of July parade. In fact, the novel’s only real flaw is that it’s a little too perfect, which some readers may find off-putting. If, however, you are willing to succumb to the spell of the small-town America everybody wishes were true, you can treat it like the setting of a precious gem: beautiful and sturdy, but not as important as what it cradles.

Although the narrative focuses on Alice, it’s written in third-person omniscient point of view, which gives us a peek into just how much Matt affected everybody in his family. Angie’s struggles to parent two willful, intelligent young women while coping with her own feelings are believable, though little sister Ellie frequently seems like an afterthought. Henry, Alice’s best friend, is the perfect encapsulation of clumsy, fumbling boy, unsure how to handle Alice’s feelings, wishing desperately he could just fix it for her. Uncle Eddie, the  novel’s carefree goofball, is another model of manhood, the boy who never quite grew up, much to Angie’s exasperation. The way the characters stumble and bumble around each other is so much like the way real love plays out, you have to wonder who Harrington has loved and lost, to capture it so closely. At the very least, she’s an excellent student of the human condition.

So, with lovely prose, a bucolic setting, and interesting characters, what’s not to like? The angst quotient is quite high, which may not work for you, and if you have to have a traditionally happy ending, Alice Bliss might not be your cup of tea, either. If, however, you have ever loved and lost, are willing to revisit the traumas of adolescence, or just need an excuse to curl up and have a good cry, this is your book. It’s tough, tender, and true, and would also be a good choice for older teens, as well as anybody in need of bibliotherapy for grief/loss.

Recommended for: Friends and families of men and women in uniform, readers who like stories about small-town life, people who like “problem novels,” nature-lovers, YA lit lovers who prefer realism to the paranormal, anyone who loves and/or misses their dad.

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