Alice Bliss, by Laura Harrington, is the story of fifteen-year-old Alice, a daddy’s girl, and the year she and her family spend with her father, Matt, deployed in Iraq. Alice’s mother Angie questions his decision to serve his country over the family who needs him, and Matt, though probably well-meaning, puts considerable pressure on Alice to take care of the family in his absence (especially Angie), complete with directions, important papers and money should anything happen. Devastated, Alice launches a campaign to relentlessly preserve all the farming rituals she has with her father and often clashing with her mom and struggling to keep up with her school work while feeding and mothering her neglected sister.
The characters are finely drawn and fully realized and it is easy to understand why they act as they do even if you sometimes don’t “get” their behavior. Alice’s little sister Ellie is a scene stealer and easily my favorite character, whether she is deciding to read the dictionary or telling Alice that she needs to change out of her dad’s shirt. Alice’s grandmother and best friend are supporting characters, but strong and enjoyable elements of the story, integral to the movement of the plot.
One area that was problematic for me, and that might not be an issue for other readers, was the dialogue. When I see books with tons of dialogue, I immediately think “If I wanted to read that much dialogue, I would read a play”. Well, Harrington is also a playwright! So, at least the dialogue wasn’t poorly written, but there is a lot of it, and sometimes the long pages of pure conversation left me feeling detached from the characters that I had grown to know and care about. There was a lot of talk without any accompanying action or direction, and those parts dragged a little. The heart of the writing, and what ultimately got me through was Harrington’s wonderful narrative which supported the dialogue. I would love to see her balance it more throughout the novel.
Alice Bliss is an important novel, but a sad one. It’s the kind of story that doesn’t register (and I was pretty clueless) unless you live it, or someone you know is living it- a loved one away from home, in constant danger, lonely, and the family steeping in unrelenting emotions of uncertainty, hopefulness, love, anger and resentment. Harrington’s not inconsiderable talent as a writer is brought to bear on this story, illuminating all the complexities of the characters and the way they both help and fail each other in difficult circumstances. Several moments throughout are completely heartbreaking, their poignancy outlining a family that is slowly falling apart yet having to learn to lean on each other. Recommended.