As I started this review, I wished I had a rating system in place to adequately express how special Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is. If I went by stars, I’d give it twelve. If I used thumbs to express approval, I’d put up all my fingers, too.
Fifteen-year-old Alice is devastated when her Army Reservist father, Matt, is shipped out to Iraq. She keeps herself busy by joining the track team, helping her mother take care of her 8-year-old sister, Ellie, and tending to the vegetable garden Alice plants with her father every year. She also starts having confusing feelings about Henry, the boy she’s been best friends with since they were little kids. In Matt’s absence, Alice leaves childhood behind and grows into a young woman who’s every bit her father’s daughter.
This book wrecked me. I cannot remember the last time I cried while reading, let alone shed enough tears to water Alice and Matt’s crop. But it wasn’t because Harrington tried to yank on my heartstrings; her style is unsentimental and not without levity. No, I was moved by the different ways the family members long for and honor Matt, by their determination to make him proud by not falling apart.
The beauty of Harrington’s writing is also exemplified by what she leaves out, such as what’s really being said in this early scene, when Matt goes over the plan for the garden with Alice so she can take care of it while he’s gone:
“You don’t like it,” he says.
“I liked it just fine last year. I thought last year was perfect.”
“No changes? No building on our successes and learning from our failures?”
“We didn’t have any failures.”
“Just way too much yellow squash.”
“Okay. Let’s take out half the yellow squash.”
“But keep the corn?”
“Yes…Just like last year,” Alice says, slowly and carefully.
“Because I want it to be the same.”
The story’s poignancy also doesn’t come from Alice being a coyingly sweet Daddy’s girl. She’s strong-willed, often locking horns with her mom and sometimes losing her patience with Ellie, another bright creation of Harrington’s.
In fact, all the characters are memorable and fully dimensional, even those who appear in only one or two scenes. Though he’s not around for most of the book, Matt’s presence looms large. Angie, Alice’s mom, struggles with parental duties after he leaves but she didn’t sign up to do it alone. They all feel like real people, and that’s what resonated the most. This may be fiction but we know there are real military families like Alice’s everywhere, striving to go on with life after their loved ones go off to war despite feeling as if they’d been hit by emotional IEDs.
Nerd verdict: Deeply moving Bliss