Travels with Alice
October 12, 2011
A Bookcrossing “travelling book” recently came my way: a copy of Laura Harrington’s new novel Alice Bliss. Bookcrossing.com encourages readers to pass along their books, either to acquaintances or to strangers, and then track them to see where they end up. The site supplies tracking numbers along with labels to paste inside a book. Harrington’s publisher, Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, has sent out some prelabeled copies to bloggers to begin the process for Alice Bliss. The idea is to give Alice, a 15-year-old from Massachusetts, a tour of the world. Currently, according to the website, she has reached 30 states and five continents. I suspect my handoff won’t add another state or continent, but I will surely pass the book on.
In a reversal of the typical process, this novel grew out of a musical, Alice Unwrapped, a solo piece that has been performed in New York and Minneapolis. Harrington won a 2008 Kleban Award for the libretto. The tale is a modern-day version of the homefront story—what goes on at home when the men march off to war. And indeed it is the man, Alice’s father Matt, who flies off to Iraq, leaving his wife and two daughters to fend for themselves. They have the support of a grandma, an uncle, and various friends, all of whom prove vital to the family’s well-being.
Somewhat alienated from her mother, teenaged Alice is especially close to her father, who has taught her gardening, baseball, roofing, puttering around a workshop, and other important life skills. Once he’s gone, she wears an old shirt of his every day and insists on planting the garden, by herself, exactly as he would have done it. Her mother worries about Alice’s obsessions but clearly has struggles of her own.
During this stressful time, Alice is also developing feelings about boys, two of them in particular, who provide exciting, ambivalent, and incoherent substitutes for her missing father. Unaccustomed to girl-coming-of-age stories, I found it comforting to discover (if Harrington can be believed) that girls are almost as stupid in their first romances as boys. There are many funny, poignant moments as Alice wavers between the nerd she’s known since childhood and the popular hunk who suddenly notices her.
Though the novel dives deep into Alice’s psyche, Harrington skips on occasion into other points of view, and she does this skillfully enough that I didn’t feel jarred. There are bits seen from the viewpoint of Alice’s mother, her comical Uncle Eddie, and her proto-boyfriend Henry. Although a few of these asides seem unnecessary, they generally add to our understanding of the characters.
The novel’s world, rich as it is, is limited in certain ways: Aside from Eddie, a cool variant of everyone’s disreputable uncle, grown men are scarce in this story. Aside from the war overseas, evil is even scarcer. Everybody is well-meaning. All are trying to make things work. Nobody is inordinately selfish. And yet this world seems true to life—even when everybody means well, suffering happens.
Alice Bliss is an accomplished novel, remarkably so for the author’s first effort in this genre. Though the main audience will surely be female, men won’t be injured by perusing the book, I promise. Maybe men with teenaged daughters will even learn something useful.