By Amy Bermudez (Army)
Alice is having a tough year. Her father deployed to Iraq, her mother is struggling emotionally and neglecting her children as a result, her best friend is acting strange, her grades are slipping, and all she wants to do is to take care of things in her dad’s absence. The book follows the Bliss family from pre-deployment to post-deployment, and shows us how a fictional American family tries to cope with uncertainty and stress in a time of war.
When I picked up Alice Bliss, I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to relate to the title character. I’ve spent time being left behind while my soldier is deployed, but being a spouse and being a military brat are vastly different. Maybe the circumstances aren’t as different as I thought or maybe Laura Harrington’s skill as a writer should get the credit, but what Alice went through felt very familiar. Just like Alice, I have clung to routine and tradition in my husband’s absence. Alice takes joins the track team, I run long distances. She tries to maintain the appearance that everything is okay; that could be my blog tagline. When she pushes a classmate for an insensitive remark, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine a few people who I’d like to push. And I was nodding along when Alice went from missing her dad to feeling angry in a split second, then just as quickly regretting that she didn’t say more to him when he finally called. The push and pull of competing emotions, even though they don’t seem like they make sense, felt very real and true to my own experience.
Far less relatable is Alice’s mom, Angie. She retreats into herself, ignoring her children and selfishly demanding that they abandon activities that bring them comfort. I think the reason that she chafed me so much is that I don’t want to believe that I could be like her. I prefer to imagine that when I have children, I’ll be graceful and selfless, even during impossibly tough times like deployment. The truth is that there are Angies out there. They aren’t villains so much as average people straining under the weight of their circumstances. The fact that I found her so frustrating is again a credit to Harrington’s ability to create real characters.
The dialogue in the book is spot-on. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Harrington is a playwright. This is her strength. The conversations manage to be natural and interesting. They stutter in the right places and they flow at the right times. I closed the book thinking, “I wish I could write dialogue like that!”
author Laura Harrington (www.lauraharringtonbooks.com/about/)
My favorite part of the book is the concluding scene. It’s beautiful and emotional. It’s the kind of moment that could be cheesy, but instead it just felt special. By that point in the book, most of the characters have grown up and grown into themselves. It’s a reward for the reader to see that even though things aren’t perfect by the end, the characters are going to be okay.
As much as I loved different aspects, the book wasn’t without flaws. Though it’s a minor quibble, I didn’t like that Alice’s parents are almost entirely referred to by their first names. Alice and her sister call them Mom and Dad, but the narrator describes them only as Angie and Matt. I felt that it created distance between the reader and Alice; I couldn’t see her world as she saw it.
Harrington’s narration choice felt clunky. The majority of the book focuses on Alice, but the third person point-of-view occasionally dips into her mother’s mind, her friend Henry’s mind, and briefly the mind of minor characters like her track coach. It’s especially jarring when we’ve spent pages and pages focused mainly on Alice, only to flip flop to her mother’s inner thoughts in the middle of the two of them fighting.
In terms of plot, I wasn’t a fan of the love story. It was another instance of the author bringing something real to the book – life doesn’t stop just because of deployment and who ever said love was convenient. I could also see its inclusion being there to further Alice’s coming of age, but the book didn’t need it. There’s plenty of meat to the story without Alice falling in love. This is probably just a matter of personal taste; I’m partial to female protagonists whose stories don’t include romantic entanglements.
In the end, the book is made up of perfect pieces (characters, dialogue, a just-right ending) that don’t quite come together as a whole. But Laura Harrington is a talented writer, and I’d love to read some of her other works.
Read another review of Alice Bliss from the blog YA Bookshelf
More about author Laura Harrington
Buy Alice Bliss
Amy Bermudez is a writer, educator, and Army wife currently stationed at Fort Bliss. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy. Her Instagram is delightful. Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post and “Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz. She has a really adorable dog named Geronimo.
I love this review! Especially this insight:
“I was nodding along when Alice went from missing her dad to feeling angry in a split second, then just as quickly regretting that she didn’t say more to him when he finally called. The push and pull of competing emotions, even though they don’t seem like they make sense, felt very real and true to my own experience.”
I agree with you that Angie was a difficult character, and very real. I did occasionally want to shake her. (I kept thinking, “I hope I do a better job [next time around] than she does.”) Do you think she was redeemed at all by the end (or at least more sympathetic)?
I also thought Harrington did a great job of showing the true magnitude of loss. There were parts of this story that just about gutted me, but it was hopeful too. I’d like to see it in every MWR library so kids out there like Alice can find it.
Angie is such a tough character for me! Some of her actions were just so darn frustrating. Like throwing away the shirt – it wasn’t hurting anyone, she didn’t talk to Alice or really listen to her. Ugh. But I reminded myself as I was reading that she was doing the best she could. (I can 100% relate to that; I come up short a lot of the time.)
It also make me think about how isolating it must be to be in a Reserve or NG family during a deployment. When my husband deployed in 2011, I was living in Dallas and not on or near a post. While it’s not quite the same as being Reserve or NG, I felt especially lonely. It was hard. I can only image how much harder it would have been for me if I had some of the same challenges Angie faced.
That’s my long way of saying, yes, Angie gets a free pass in the end from me.
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I had the same thought about her being a NG spouse – not having that built-in sense of community that active duty spouses sometimes do. Or if not community, at least a sense of identity.
Amy, I enjoyed reading your review of Harrington’s book. As a former middle school Language Arts teacher, I know the need of having relevant young adult novels, and this one seems to be a an appropriate read for those students who are in Alice’s situation as well as for students who can learn about and become sensitive to the emotional thermometer of their peers who face the daily challenges presented by having a parent deployed and away from home. Thanks for writing the review. I will pass this title and your review onto my Librarian friends.
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I agree whole heartedly that young adults (military kids or otherwise) could benefit from reading this book. I think kids would find Alice and her sister to be very relatable. Some of the themes are a little bit adult (some bad language and one scene toward the end), but they are well-handled. I don’t think that would be a reason to discourage a kid from reading Alice Bliss, just something to keep in mind.
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Right — there’s a little bit of “sexy time.” Heads up for middle-school teachers/ librarians.
I like this review and the novel sounds like an interesting read. Life at home for the family of a deployed military member is such a particular experience that I think the broader public would really benefit from reading novels like this to get a better sense of what the children and spouses of those members routinely go through.
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Nicely said, Amy. I appreciate your insightful analysis of the characters and what makes them, well, them. I always love a good Amy-review. Keep sharing, please! 🙂
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