Alice Bliss: A Novel

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"Outside the back window Alice can see the outlines of the garden, some of the furrows visible under the snow, stretching away in long thin rows. She can't imagine doing the garden without her dad. It's his thing; she's always thought of herself as his assistant at best. She can't imagine doing anything without her dad and she starts to feel like she can't breathe. And then she looks at him. Just looks at him as he watches the fire with muffin crumbs on his lap.
'I'll write to ...
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Alice Bliss

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"Outside the back window Alice can see the outlines of the garden, some of the furrows visible under the snow, stretching away in long thin rows. She can't imagine doing the garden without her dad. It's his thing; she's always thought of herself as his assistant at best. She can't imagine doing anything without her dad and she starts to feel like she can't breathe. And then she looks at him. Just looks at him as he watches the fire with muffin crumbs on his lap.
'I'll write to you.'
'I know, sweetheart.'
'Every day.'"
--From Alice Bliss

When Alice Bliss learns that her father, Matt, is being deployed to Iraq, she's heartbroken. Alice idolizes her father, loves working beside him in their garden, accompanying him on the occasional roofing job, playing baseball. When he ships out, Alice is faced with finding a way to fill the emptiness he has left behind.

Matt will miss seeing his daughter blossom from a tomboy into a full-blown teenager. Alice will learn to drive, join the track team, go to her first dance, and fall in love, all while trying to be strong for her mother, Angie, and take care of her precocious little sister, Ellie. But the smell of Matt is starting to fade from his blue shirt that Alice wears everyday, and the phone calls are never long enough.

Alice Bliss is a profoundly moving coming-of-age novel about love and its many variations--the support of a small town looking after its own; love between an absent father and his daughter; the complicated love between an adolescent girl and her mother; and an exploration of new love with the boy-next-door. These characters' struggles amidst uncertain times echo our own, lending the novel an immediacy and poignancy that is both relevant and real. At once universal and very personal, Alice Bliss is a transforming story about those who are left at home during wartime, and a teenage girl bravely facing the future.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Discover Great New Writers

Time is running out. The number of days until Alice Bliss's father gets called to Fort Dix and then to Iraq is dwindling painfully in her mind. She will go through the motions of saying goodbye and promising to be brave, but she can't imagine life without him. He's leaving just when she needs him most. At 14, she is a nervous teenager, facing the prospect of her first date, first dance, and first kiss during his absence. Though she's promised to look after her mother and sister, Alice is so unsteadied that she wears one of her father's shirts every day for weeks, until her mother insists that she wash it. Moving through each moment as if he were still there—eating foods he liked, doing chores they shared, recalling past conversations, Alice carefully patches each day back together, ticking off the days until he returns. While his calls and letters are never sufficiently long enough to ease the constant ache of his absence, time passes and almost imperceptibly, Alice picks up the strands of her life again, finding comfort in dulling routines while always implicitly preparing for that one irrevocable knock on the door.

A resonant story set against the uncertainty of war, Alice Bliss is a novel about the deep fusion of love and loss. Alice's complicated relationship with her mother, her abiding love for her absent father, and the first love she finds with the boy next door combine to define the young woman she's fast becoming. Alice is a memorable character and her poignant story is bursting with the richness of life.

Publishers Weekly
Playwright and lyricist Harrington transforms her one-act musical Alice Unwrapped into a moving debut about loss and survival. Fifteen-year-old Alice has always been closer to her father (they share a love of working with their hands) than to her mother, but when she needs him the most, he's deployed to Iraq. Alice flexes her independence by claiming his workshop as her own and wearing his shirt. She feels a mix of responsibility and resentment toward her precocious little sister and her disengaged mother, and pursues typical teenage rites of passage while fearing the arrival of bad news. When it comes, Alice inspires her family to preserve her father's traditions and to craft new ones in his honor. The playwright's facility with language is evident throughout: "Maybe, she thinks, maybe he'll be home in time for cucumbers, and if not cucumbers, then for corn, and if not corn, then surely in time for tomatoes." Though the fluid narration offers access to many characters, this is the story of Alice, her courage, fear, and optimism, and her heartbreaking discovery of the extent to which her father's life will shape and guide her own. (June)
Library Journal
At 14, Alice Bliss enjoys a close relationship with her father, Matt, and doesn't relate well to her mother. Alice and Matt are in sync; they plan their garden together, and he teaches her how to care for their tools. Alice's mother, Angie, adores high heels and dressing up to go out. She stresses to her husband that she is "not a farm wife." When Matt is called to active duty in Iraq, the small family nearly disintegrates. Angie checks out, and Alice refuses to wear anything other than Matt's old shirt. She is left to navigate young adulthood, relationships, and the care of her younger sister, Ellie, while waiting for word of her father's fate. Harrington, a playwright and professor of playwriting at MIT, chooses a timely topic and obviously loves her characters, but her debut novel is an adaptation of her off-Broadway musical, Alice Unwrapped, and reads very much like a play. Stage directions and stilted dialog take the place of what should be flowing scenes and descriptive characterizations. VERDICT This valiant effort could work for those with loved ones overseas, but the novel's structure falls flat. It would be better reworked as a screenplay for young adults. [See Prepub Alert, 1/17/11.]—Julie Kane, Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA
Library Journal
Alice Bliss is heartbroken but hopeful when her dad is sent to Iraq; she wears his favorite shirt daily. Then comes that terrifying moment when two uniformed officers arrive at the door. Playwright Harrington's debut novel should touch a nerve for many readers.
Kirkus Reviews

Playwright Harrington's first novel, based on her one-woman musical, focuses on the upstate New York family of a National Guard reservist called into service during the Iraq War.

Salt-of-the-earth Matt Bliss considers it his moral obligation to serve his country, although he hates leaving behind his beloved, distraught wife Angie and his daughters: 8-year-old Ellie and 15-year-old Alice. Once he's left for duty, Angie throws herself into her insurance career but can barely function domestically. Precocious Ellie starts wetting the bed and reading Matt's dictionary aloud. Stalwart Alice, with whom Matt has always shared a special bond, tries to pick up the slack at home with only minimal success. For support she turns to her longtime best friend Henry, the unbelievably caring boy every mother hopes her teenage daughter will luck into as her first love. At the cusp of adolescence, Alice finds their relationship changing in confusing ways, especially when an older, popular but equally sensitive boy named John shows an interest in her. Teenage romance takes the passenger seat when word comes that Matt has been declared MIA. Fortunately, the Blisses receive succor from Angie's mother and brother, as well as many friends in their idyllic small town. Angie rises to the challenge, helping her daughters function day by day. By the time they learn Matt's fate, Angie and Alice have struggled past minor mother-daughter tensions to offer each other consolation.Alice is in many ways a different girl by story's end. The novel closes with a lovely image that theatrically arcs back to the opening scene.

It feels curmudgeonly to fault Harrington's earnest, uplifting (and apolitical) approach to this topical subject, but the surfeit of sensitivity weakens its impact and the reader's interest.

From the Publisher
Chosen as a “People Pick” by People Magazine, a “Listeners’ Top Book Pick” by NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook, for the Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program, as an Entertainment Weekly "Best Reads of the Summer," as a Publishers Weekly First Fiction title, and was the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction in 2012

“Harrington creates nothing less than a fully realized vision of a young complicated girl.” —Entertainment Weekly

“I put down this book and thought, there is no one like this beautiful, feisty girl, so fully has Harrington brought Alice Bliss to life. The great sorrow, of course, is that there are many Alice Blisses out there. The power of Harrington’s richly delineated novel lies in putting a girl like Alice before us and asking us to remember how many others are staring down the long hall of adulthood with a father or a mother gone to war.”  —Sarah Blake, bestselling author of The Postmistress

“There are thousands of American kids like Alice, facing down their teen years with a parent gone to war. Her story is harrowing and heartbreaking, but it reads like truth.” —People (Four Stars)

“This book may be the Our Town of the twenty-first century.” —Anne Roiphe, bestselling author of Epilogue: A Memoir

“Though the fluid narration offers access to many characters, this is the story of Alice, her courage, fear, and optimism, and her heartbreaking discovery of the extent to which her father’s life will shape and guide her own.” —Publishers Weekly

“Heartbreaking yet edged with promise, Alice Bliss explores the wounds of war, love, and family bonds while illuminating the strength of a young girl’s spirit. A stunning debut.” —Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

"Through the eyes of 15-year-old Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington brings to life the impact of war on our nation's most vulnerable. A beautifully told story about life, loss and the gift of unconditional love." —Tanya Biank, author of Army Wives

“This is a remarkably sensitive first novel, full of splendid characterizations … It’s a heartbreaker—have tissues at hand—with promise shining through the pain.” —Booklist (starred)

“You won’t see Iraq in these pages … [Harrington’s] book, in the end, really isn’t about this war. It’s about kids and fathers, about growing up with decent values and then being shaken hard and having to figure it out from there. It’s a very fine book, and if rips your heart out, that’s not a bad thing.”
—Jesse Kornbluth, Headbutler 

“A powerful, wrenching story that reads as simple, unadorned truth.” —School Library Journal (A Best of the Year So Far in the “Best Books 4 Teens” category)

“Alice Bliss adroitly illustrates the burden of war, not only on those deployed, but also on those left behind. And without saying so explicitly. Realistic in its portrayal of family dynamics, community life, and response to major life events, the story of Alice Bliss would be a helpful read for families whose loved one(s) are deployed.” —New York Journal of Books

“Alice is a true heroine: intelligent, passionate, strong-minded. Watching her find her way is an absorbing pleasure.”  —Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street

“Meet Alice Bliss, the heroine of Laura Harrington’s gorgeous page-turner of a first novel. Like Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice is destined to become a household name. In luminous, haunting prose Harrington enters the minds and hearts of all of her characters, imbuing her story with a timeless wisdom.” —Charlotte Gordon, author of The Woman Who Named God and Mistress Bradstreet

Alice Bliss is a poignant tale about the homefront horrors of war when a father leaves his wife and two girls for a tour of duty in Iraq. It is a touching reminder of our need for community to help those left behind find inner peace in a time of war.” —JoeAnn Hart, author of Addled

 “Strong storytelling and a rich emotional core.” —Jenny Downham, author of Before I Die

“Laura Harrington writes with grace, humor, and uncanny wisdom about loss and resilience and the workings of the human heart.  Alice’s is a voice we need to hear, telling a story that lights up a dark corner of the sky.  ALICE BLISS is unforgettable.” —Rachel Kadish, author of From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied

“An incredibly poignant story. [Harrington’s] portrayal of what families face when a loved one is deployed makes the novel appealing for males and females, adults and teens, alike.” —ALAN’s Picks

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670022786
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/2/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 8.38 (w) x 5.78 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington is an award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist. She teaches playwriting at MIT and lives in Gloucester, MA. Alice Bliss, her first novel, grew out of her one-woman musical, Alice Unwrapped.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: August 20th

This is the first time Alice has been allowed to walk back to their campsite from the Kelp Shed alone. She is fourteen, barefoot, her sneakers tied together by the laces and slung across her shoulder so she can feel the soft, sandy dust of the single-track road between her toes. Her sister fell asleep halfway through the square dance, dropping from hyperexcited to unconscious in a flash. Her father carries Ellie draped over his shoulder, and casually, or so it seems, her mother says, "Come home when the dance is done."
She can hardly believe it. The dance is still in her feet, still in her bones, the steps like an intricate game. She danced with everyone and anyone at all, old and young, men and women, just to stay on the floor and moving. The caller was a blind man with two fingers missing from his left hand. His face was wrinkled and brown from the sun, his body heavy and the voice that called the steps strangely high and sweet. A boy's voice in a man's body. A boy's wildness, as though he had no awareness of himself in his body.
She gave in, finally, and danced with her father—embarrassed to be asked by him, worried that everyone would be watching and judging and thinking her still a child. But he surprises her. He is a good dancer. Precise. His hands firm on her back or her hand or her arm. She is suddenly dancing better than she has ever danced before, suddenly experiencing the freedom inside the squares. She can let go because he is so confident. She is tasting something adult, grown-up, or almost tasting it. It is just beyond her reach, this feeling, what it is, how to name it and understand it. Now it is pure sensation, unadulterated fun. Years later she will remember his touch on her back, pulling her in, letting her go, her own helpless laughter, the way he guided her, his touch steady and strong, and how he held her close and let her go, over and over again.
The dust beneath her feet now is cool, the day's heat long gone. It is mid-August and already you can feel fall coming with the way night rushes in. She pulls on her sweater and as she crests the first hill she can see almost all of Small Point, the shape of the island dark against the water. She can hear the waves on the beach below her. There are fires still burning at a few campsites, but mostly it is true dark.
Alone on the road, she stops. What is she feeling? Intensely awake. Aware. A bit scared. She senses everything, her body open to the sky and the night, the smell of salt and pine and wood smoke, the wind, the scratchy wool of her old sweater, her hips loose in her jeans, her feet cool and tough and sure on the road.
In the distance she sees what look like stars on the water. Following the dip in the road, she loses sight of them, but cresting the next hill she sees them again. She breaks into a jog and takes the turn down to the ocean, away from her campsite. There it is again. Another curve and she can see where it is: the Devil's Bathtub. She is on the beach now, walking toward the outlying rock formation, a wide cleft in the rocks that becomes an eight foot pool at high tide and empties to sand at low tide.
There are fires on the water. How can that be? And now she sees them: a group of boys lighting small wooden rafts on fire and setting them afloat in this natural pool. They are quiet, intent. Why are they doing this? It's so beautiful, the small rafts floating, in flames, and then gone.
The boys have run out of boats; the last fire winks out. Now they strip off their clothes, daring one another to dive in. She crouches where she is, watching them, their pale bodies against the dark rock. She has never seen a naked boy before. She is not close enough to see much, but their nakedness is loud in the dark. Her eyes pass over each boy as though she could run a hand across a face or a chest, along a thigh.
She turns and lies in the sand, listening to their shouts as they dive and splash, listening as the cold and the search for their clothes quiets them. And the sky overhead is raining stars. These are the Perseids her father has told her about. She wants to get up and go and find him, she wants to tell the boys, Look up! Look up! But she can't move; there is magic occurring in front of her eyes. The heavens are throwing jewels at her feet. It is impossible, as impossible as fire on the water, as impossible as her hand on the chest of a naked boy, and yet here she is, seeing it with her own eyes.

January 29th
Matt Bliss is somebody who knows how to be happy. A former engineer, he's now a carpenter, doing what he loves, a craftsman, meticulous. He likes to say he escaped from his career and got himself a job. He coaches Little League even though neither of his daughters shows any aptitude for baseball. He was a pitcher on the local farm team right out of college, until his father told him to get serious and he went to grad school for his engineering degree. He still pitches for a local team.
Matt grows vegetables. Alice helps. They grow the best corn and the best tomatoes in town, not like there's much competition anymore. Ever since Mr. Hendrickson down the road died, the old time guys who put in vegetables every year have really dwindled. Matt says, "You just wait, the hippie kids will bring it all back again; all that poison in our food now, people are waking up. You can do it yourself.
Good food. Cheap." And they've got this black dirt he loves to go on and on about. Topsoil eighteen inches deep. "Beautiful stuff!" He keeps trying to get Angie interested in canning or preserving or freezing their bounty, but this is not Angie's bailiwick.
So Alice and Ellie and Matt are the ones to snap beans, make tomato sauce and tomato juice and salsa, grape jelly and grape juice. Matt wants to plant three more apple trees in the side yard where Angie would like to have a nice patio. Two more cherry trees, too, right next to his grape arbor. Apple butter, he tells her, apple pies, cherry pies. Angie rolls her eyes and says: "Matt Bliss, you did not marry a farm girl." He laughs and picks her up and kisses her. Times like this the two of them head off for a "nap" hand in hand. Eventually figuring out just what this euphemism means makes Alice a little queasy. Here it is, right in front of her face, the power of opposites to attract.
Angie would love to stay in a nice hotel; Matt likes to camp. Angie is upwardly mobile, a striver if ever there was one; Matt likes things just the way they are. Angie thinks they're living in a starter house; Matt thinks they're home. Angie likes French perfume; Matt likes to get his hands dirty. The fact that Angie might like those workman's hands on her perfumed skin is a thought Alice vigorously chases from her mind.
The army reserve was a bone of contention, too. Angie all hung up on what's fair, why should Matt have to do it, what about his own family. Matt talking about doing what's right, not letting somebody else do what he should do: serving his country, an example to his girls. Finally they agree to disagree and Angie seems reconciled to it, even seems to enjoy the additional income, the occasional dinner in a nice restaurant, all dolled up in a new dress and high heels. And, oh, there's that perfume again, Matt's laughter, Angie's surrender, and another closed door.
But now, with the war dragging on and on, Matt's unit has been called up. He's heading to Fort Dix. Until recently reservists got six months of specialized instruction. Now they are fast-tracking volunteers through six weeks of supposedly high-quality, hurry up, move 'em out training.
The weeks prior to his leaving are an insane rush. Angie and Matt talk late into the night, every night, sitting at the kitchen table. They argue. Angie tries not to cry again, they pore over health insurance, Matt's will and living will, the power of attorney forms. They try to anticipate what Angie will be facing in the coming months.

They are running out of time. They all know it. It's in the air they breathe.

Alice is so tired her eyes are burning but she can't sleep. As long as her father is still awake and still in the house and still talking or drinking coffee, Alice wants to be near him. So she sits in the dark at the foot of the stairs and listens.
"Why are you insisting—?" Angie's voice pops up a register when she's upset.
"You know why."
"Tell me why the United States Army is more important than your own family."
"It's not an either or equation, Angie."
"You like this. You're actually excited."
"I like the work, I like my crew, I like the challenge, the chance to—"
"But leaving us, Matt—"
"You know I don't want to leave you."
"They'll throw you right in the middle of—"
"I'm going where I'm needed."
"I need you. Doesn't that count anymore?"
"Of course it does."
"I never imagined—never—that you would do something like this. You were going to play baseball for god's sake. Baseball! How did we get from baseball to—"
"Angie, it's not just about you and me."
"Okay, so you're the selfless hero and I'm the selfish wife. You think I want this role? I didn't sign up for this. This was not part of the plan."
"I know."
"I hate this, I really hate this."
"Sweetheart . . ." Alice can hear the ache in his voice.
"I want . . ." Angie's voice breaks.
"I don't want to be one of those guys who gets old and says, I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that."
"Oh, Matt . . ."
"I want to contribute, and I don't think we should just send our kids to this war."
"But what if—?"
"Don't you have any faith in me?"
"Of course I do."
"I'm coming home, Angie."
"Promise me."
"I promise."
It's quiet for a moment.
"I want letters, you know," Matt says. "Real letters. With perfume. You can't carry an e-mail around in your pocket."
"You're not so deluded you actually think this is romantic?"
"I do. A little."
"It won't be romantic if—"
"Oh, yeah," he teases her, laughing. "The fallen hero, blah, blah, blah."
Alice hears the kitchen chairs scrape across the floor and knows it is time to beat a retreat up the stairs to bed. But she waits another moment, and another. She wants to see her dad one more time tonight.
They walk through the kitchen door. The dining room light is nothing more than a warm glow, illuminating them. Matt pulls Angie to him and kisses her, and kisses her some more.
Alice backs slowly up the stairs, carefully stepping over the creakiest step, third from the top. She puts her freezing cold hands under her armpits to try to warm them as she walks down the hall to her room. She waits to duck inside her door until she hears them on the stairs. Matt has his arm around Angie's waist and he has even managed to make her laugh. That soft, musical, surrendering laugh Angie saves just for Matt and his beautiful blue eyes.
Alice closes her door as softly as possible and leans against it, hoping they have not heard her. She hears them pass by whispering and giggling like little kids.
Ellie has kicked her covers off as usual. Alice pulls the quilt over Ellie and then climbs into her own bed. She listens to Ellie breathing; she closes her eyes, tight, tight, and tries to breathe through the knot in her chest. She wishes she could call Henry but that would mean waking up Mr. and Mrs. Grover and getting into trouble for calling so late. She wishes they still had their walkie-talkies hooked up. She could ask Henry to leave his on so she could listen to the static and hear him sleeping and breathing the way she did that whole terrible month in fourth grade when her grandfather was dying. What happened to those walkie-talkies she wonders, and what's Henry doing right now? She'll ask him tomorrow. If it doesn't sound too crazy in the cold light of day.

January 31st

Matt is in his workshop puttering around with a cup of forgotten coffee sitting on the windowsill. It's a cold day with flurries and a gusting wind, so he's got the woodstove going full blast and he's wearing his tan work jacket with the ripped pocket. Alice slips in and sits on a wooden crate near the stove. What is she doing here, exactly? Her English homework lies forgotten in her lap. She is, what? Hanging out? Breathing the air? Daydreaming? Making a nuisance of herself? All of the above? She brought her dad a toasted muffin as a way of interrupting him and then stuck. Like a burr. She is uninvited, she feels awkward; but this is where she has to be even if Matt would rather be alone.
But Matt would not rather be alone. There are things he wants to say to his daughter before he leaves but they all sound so portentous and ominous that he can't bring himself to begin. There are things she needs to know, things she needs to prepare for, and it's really not fair to leave all the talking and informing and awkwardness to Angie. So he talks about the garden instead. He pulls out last year's plan and asks Alice to come over and take a look. She throws another log in the woodstove and joins him at the workbench.
"So I was thinking less corn because there will only be three of you."
"What about Gram? She can always take the extra."
"Because that way we could squeeze in another row of yellow beans."
"And beets."
"You're the only one who likes beets, Dad."
"Two plants at most."
He notates the changes as they talk.
"You can do peas spring and fall like we did last year."
"Can we do basil?"
"Sure. And Mom likes arugula."
Suddenly Alice's hands are clammy and she can't lift her eyes from the plan.
"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?"
"And everything else."
"Just like last year," Alice says, slowly and carefully.
"Because . . . ?"
"Because I want it to be the same."
Alice manages to look him in the eye, which is when he can see how hard she is working to stay in control.
"Okay." He smiles at her. "We'll go with last year's design."
"You want gourds even if I'm not here?"
In the far corner of the garden Matt grows decorative gourds. They are strange things: bumpy and lumpy and misshapen. But they are colorful and surprising and they serve no purpose other than to amaze. Alice has every intention of growing gourds this year and every year for the rest of her life.
Matt labels the plan with the date and tacks it up on the wall.
"You can rototill mid-April if the ground isn't too wet and heavy. You can call Jimmy Rose to do it; or ask Uncle Eddie to help you."
"Got it."
"You might have to pester Jimmy. He gets busy."
Matt looks out the window at the snow covering the garden.
"And I want you to help your mom."
"I know."
"No, Alice. Really help her. Like you're her partner. I want you to help her take care of Ellie and the house and . . . She's gonna need you."
"Okay. But tell her to remember to ask me."
"She acts like I'm supposed to know everything she wants and when I don't she gets mad. If she'd just tell me. Or ask me—"
"You tell her."
"She doesn't listen to me."
"Keep trying."
Alice looks at her feet.
"Honey? Keep trying."
"You know where all my papers are."
"Dad! We've been over this!"
She doesn't want to hear about his will and his life insurance again. She doesn't even want those papers to exist.
"I opened up an account for you." He reaches into his back pocket and holds out a bankbook from the local bank. "It's just a basic savings account. But I put five hundred dollars in there for you. In case you need something."
"Dad, it's okay."
"Or there's an emergency."
She's backing away from him. She doesn't want to touch the bankbook.
"Or your mom can't handle things for a few days."
"Alice, there are things you need to know."
She trips backing away from him and sits down, hard, on her butt. Which is funny. In an awful sort of stupid, annoying way.
He reaches out to help her up and pulls her into a hug. It's a real hug, the kind of hug he used to give her before she started turning into a teenager and growing breasts and getting sweaty and unsure. He holds her for a long time. She breathes him in. Sawdust. Wood smoke. Cold coffee. Aftershave. Linseed oil. Dad.
Matt is trying to stay right here with Alice; he is trying not to let his mind run off with all the what ifs that have been keeping him awake at night. He's wishing his parents were still alive. His mom would know how to pick up the slack, or how to step in if Angie and Alice really can't get along. And his dad . . . his dad would plant the garden with Alice, and take her to baseball games and . . .
"I need to show you something."
"Not your will again."
"Come over here."
He leads her to the big wooden tool chest. He pulls out the first three levels of tools, then opens a drawer and slides that out completely. Underneath the socket wrenches there's a plain white envelope with her name on it. He opens the envelope and fans five one hundred dollar bills.
"What's that for?"
"It's there if you need it. And in the envelope there are some important numbers. The VA so you can get benefits, my lawyer, my life insurance . . ."
"Dad! You're talking like you're not coming back."
"No, no, no." He grins at her, and his whole face lights up. "This is like carrying an umbrella in case it rains, and then it doesn't rain, so . . ."
"It's just insurance. It's just an umbrella. You can't take it too seriously."
She wants to believe him.
"And together, right now, I want the two of us to make a list of who you can call if you need help."
She's looking at the floor and she's thinking, no list, no cash, no strategies. Can he just back out, refuse to go, change his mind? Could they move to Canada? Or Mexico? Could they just get into the car and go? Or could she get violently sick right this minute or have some awful but minor accident that would keep him from leaving?
"C'mon. A list."
"Define help."
"Shoveling the driveway, jumpstarting the car, advice on a repair, moral support, somebody to take you to the movies or the library or out for ice cream."
So they agree on Gram and Uncle Eddie and Henry and his parents and her favorite teacher, Mrs. Cole, and Mrs. Minty, who lives down the road, in a pinch, and her parents' friends the Hoyts, from the old neighborhood, and her dad's baseball buddy Bobby Lester. She adds Mrs. Piantowski, the lady who bakes bread for Gram's restaurant, at the last minute.
Her dad writes all these names down in his perfect block printing and adds the phone numbers from memory or the phone book. And then he adds the family doctor, dentist, banker, and insurance man.
He writes up a second copy to put in the house and tacks the original to the inside lid of his toolbox. He pulls the only chair over to the woodstove next to Alice's crate and opens the door to the stove so they can watch the fire burn. He picks up the muffin and hands a piece to Alice before sitting down and stretching his feet out to the fire. They sit like that, not talking, for what seems like a long time.
Outside the back window Alice can see the outlines of the garden, some of the furrows visible under the snow, stretching away in long thin rows. She can't imagine doing the garden without her dad. It's his thing; she's always thought of herself as his assistant at best. She can't imagine doing anything without her dad and she starts to feel like she can't breathe. And then she looks at him. Just looks at him as he watches the fire with muffin crumbs on his lap.
"I'll write to you."
"I'm counting on it."
"Every day."
She takes a breath.
"Dad . . ."
He closes up the woodstove.
"We need to go in, I think."
Not yet, Alice thinks, not yet.
"I wish . . ."
"Me, too, sweetheart. Me, too."
Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

ALICE BLISS is a profoundly moving uplifting novel about those who are left at home during wartime and a teenage girl bravely facing the future. It chronicles the impact of the war on those left at home: children, partners, family members, the community. With the US in a war the story is quite timely. Do you have a connection to the world about which you write?
My father was a navigator/ bombardier in WWII, flying missions into Germany from his air base just north of Paris. Both my brothers enlisted in the Air Force in 1966. So, while I don't have a family member serving in this war, my family has been deeply impacted by war.
My father suffered from PTSD following the war, a time he would never talk about directly. Nor would he talk about the experiences during the war that had so devastated him. The silence surrounding my father's war experiences has probably been the single greatest mystery and inspiration in my life. I believe that my fascination with war grows out of my need to understand these experiences and to bear witness to this silent suffering.
ALICE BLISS is not a book about war. When you were writing did you find it challenging to focus on the personal story of the family rather than the politics?
I made a strong choice early on not to go to Iraq in the book. I knew that the emotional impact would come from keeping the story focused on Alice and her family at home. At the same time, Matt, Alice's father, is such a key character and we have so little time with him before he ships out. How do we keep him and his story present? Finding that balance was challenging and an interesting puzzle to solve.
What inspired you to write this book now?
I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those left behind, illuminating the lives of spouses and partners and children who have a loved one deployed is important. Do we know their stories, their struggles? Do we hear their voices? I hope we can begin to see this war one child at a time, one soldier at a time, one missing father at a time.
What do you hope families experiencing a similar scenario take away from reading your book?
I hope they will feel that I am telling their story and doing justice to it.
While writing the book I was simply immersed in the story, but now that I'm done I can step back and look at the larger picture. It strikes me that you can live in many parts of the US completely untouched and unaware of the wars we've been engaged in for the last 8 years. And there's something about that fact that is terribly unsettling. I think there is an enormous amount of unexpressed grief surrounding these wars and that ALICE BLISS, like good theatre, creates an emotional catalyst that allows us to feel that grief.
And because the book is not "about" the war, but about a family and a town and growing up, the emotional impact sneaks up on you.
Who have you discovered lately?
Discovering books is one of life's greatest pleasures. I love the way one writer can lead us to another and another; and I love the way serendipity plays such a delightful role in how books come into our hands.
I recently read A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano and so loved the writing, the story, the depth and ambition of this book that I didn't want it to end. When it did, I craved more good writing. So I picked up Fools of Fortune by William Trevor, a book that shattered me in two hundred and seven pages. A book so finely wrought that I immediately turned back to page one and began again for both the pleasure of the writing and the desire to discover the mystery of the "how" of Trevor's writing. How did he do what he did so beautifully and compellingly, so simply and so succinctly? I'm not sure there is a wasted syllable in this book.
Tim Winton's Cloudstreet is, for me, the discovery of the year. Winton is a prolific Australian writer but Cloudstreet(2002) is his masterpiece. [—We couldn't agree more: Cloudstreet was a Discover selection. -Ed.]
And Jane Gardam's Old Filth is the work of a master storyteller. This slim volume presents you with a character you don't much like and certainly don't understand, and then proceeds to reveal layer by layer what an extraordinary man he is.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide


When his army reserve unit is deployed to Iraq, Matt Bliss leaves behind his daughters, Alice and Ellie, and his wife, Angie, to manage as best they can without him—a tall order, especially for teenage Alice, who adores her father. Laura Harrington's debut novel Alice Bliss is the story of nearly a year in Alice's life, as she balances the drama of adolescence with the effort of keeping her family together. The book is a tale of heartache, resilience, and hope in a time of challenge.

Angie, worried sick about Matt and the pressure of suddenly being a single parent, begins to crumble. It is up to Alice to fill the void left by both parents for not only herself but her quirky younger sister, Ellie. Although Alice often feels that no one understands what she's going through, she discovers that when it counts, compassion comes from friends and neighbors, who reach out with comfort, advice, and encouragement. Harrington addresses a timely and difficult topic with grace, sympathy, and humor, and she has captured the variety and authenticity of the small-town American experience.

Harrington's portrait of Alice captures the experience of a young woman struggling to hold it together when things feel like they're falling apart. Alice is alternately vulnerable and strong, proud and awkward. The novel is an honest reflection of the conflicting nature of adolescence, compounded by the absence of a beloved father. Alice tries to give her dad the details of the everyday family life he misses so much, but she finds their rare phone conversations forced and frustrating. Then, not long after Matt's departure, the Bliss family gets a knock on the door that will draw them even further from their former lives and push them toward an uncertain future.

Deeply moving, lucid, and insightful, Laura Harrington's novel deftly avoids melodrama or saccharine sentiments. Instead,Alice Bliss asks difficult questions about responsibility—to one's country, to one's family, to one's self—while celebrating the strength of the human spirit and love in all its forms.


Laura Harrington is a playwright, lyricist, and librettist whose work has been produced in the United Sates, Canada, and abroad. She teaches playwriting at MIT and has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Kleban Award and the 2009 MIT Levitan Award for Excellence in Teaching. She currently lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.


Q. You provide a detailed and nuanced description of what it's like to live with the absence of a family member during a time of war. How might your personal experiences be similar to Alice's?

I was thirteen when my two brothers enlisted in the air force, one just out of high school, one just out of college. I went from being part of a raucous family to an only child overnight. My parents, who had gone through World War II, believing it was the war to end all wars, were heartbroken. At the same time I remember the dinner table conversations before my brothers enlisted where my parents would say, "If you don't go, someone else will have to go in your place."

Those four years were a very dark and confusing time, personally, politically, for the nation. One of my brothers went to Vietnam, one worked stateside with NORAD; they both came home again. But of course they were not the same boys who left, and our family was never the same again. My mother would also say about my father, "The fellow who went to war didn't come home."

Q. As a successful playwright and librettist, what drew you to fiction, and how does it compare to your other art forms?

I was drawn to fiction because I wanted to be a beginner again, I wanted to do something I didn't know how to do, and I wanted to reconnect to the creative process by turning my writing world upside down.

How does it compare? At first fiction seemed like an utterly alien, strange new world. I would sit down to write every day and think, "How do you do this?" Finding my way forward into the novel also meant reaching back into my theater tool kit. And here's my favorite part about writing fiction: the good part, the fun part, lasts longer. A play or a musical is ninety to one hundred pages, double-spaced, with lots of white space on every page. A libretto for a full-length opera might be half that long. These are condensed, compressed mediums, more closely aligned to poetry than fiction. So the creative burst—the fun part of writing intensely—lasts for weeks, maybe a few months; certainly not the year or longer of a novel. Getting to live inside my characters and their story so deeply with Alice Bliss was a huge pleasure.

Q. What was the genesis of Alice Bliss?

Alice Bliss was inspired by the one-woman musical, Alice Unwrapped, I wrote with the composer Jenny Giering. At thirty minutes and almost entirely sung, we could really only dramatize one key moment in Alice's life. And I realized that there was a much larger story to be told. Which is when I decided I wanted to write a book.

Q. What has the reaction been to the novel so far?

Readers' reactions so far have been extraordinary. They make me blush.

Q. You make a brief reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland—"curiouser and curiouser" (p. 116)—and I'm wondering what other similarities you see between the two young women. Your Alice does go through a rabbit hole of sorts, into a very different world than she previously lived in. Is there a certain absurdity to grief and the limbo of waiting and hoping in which Alice exists?

What an interesting question! I guess you can never call a girl Alice without invoking "the" Alice. Maybe I was thinking about the Orwellian absurdities of doublespeak that occur the minute we go to war. Or that Alice exists in a world within a world. The world of her family has suddenly been turned upside down. Her dad is gone, her mom is heartbroken, everybody's worried sick, Alice suddenly needs to grow up fast and help her mom. And at the same time, the world outside her family has not changed one whit; when she walks out her door, Alice lives among friends and classmates who have no idea what she and her family are going through. I think families of reservists can feel especially isolated. Not living on base means that they are not surrounded with other families going through the same thing. How does Alice negotiate those two worlds?

Q. Some might find Angie a difficult character. While her struggle with loneliness and grief generates intense sympathy, readers might also be frustrated by her neglect of some of her responsibilities as a mother. What are your feelings toward Angie?

I love Angie. I love the way she loves her family, the way she is still in love with Matt, the honesty and depth of her grief and longing. And I love her for struggling and failing and making mistakes. I have a soft spot for flawed characters; I feel you don't love someone in spite of their flaws but because of them. I also wanted to write a realistic portrait of a mother-daughter relationship when the daughter is a teenager.

Alice is terrifically well drawn. You present some of the confounding aspects of adolescent behavior with kindness and honesty, but you never condescend to her or make her simplistic—a flaw of many teens in fiction. How did you approach your depiction of Alice?

I listened to her. And I pushed her. And I let her make her own mistakes.

Q. How did she change over the course of your writing?

She grew, she deepened, she started to take chances. She found her courage. She didn't harden her heart, which is one of the things I admire most about her.

Q. Angie considers the night sky and Matt's letter to her describing the moon in the desert. She thinks to herself, "My soul lifts up" (p. 100) but although the quotation is familiar to her, she can't place it. Where does the phrase come from?

It's a fairly common phrase, found in scripture, a variation of it is in the Book of Common Prayer, and it seems to be frequently used in poetry.

Q. Reading over the letter of advice that Matt gives to Alice (p. 297), it's an excellent summary of common sense and consideration. What advice did your parents give you when you were young? Did it prove useful?

My life is deeply informed by both of my parents and their values. My father's spirit, in particular, informs almost every page ofAlice Bliss. They might not have articulated the advice Matt did, but they lived it.

Q. What projects—musical and literary—are you currently working on? How many projects do you have in progress at one time?

I concentrate on one thing at a time but often have a few projects in various stages of development. I'm working on another novel at the moment, A Catalogue of Birds. My theater work continues to be fun and engaging. I have musicals and operas scheduled in Minneapolis, Maryland, New York City, and Korea.


  • Is there an Alice in your town? Do you know anyone in your neighborhood or community who is serving in the reserves or is on active duty? How would you reach out to someone like Angie, or Alice, or Ellie?
  • Why does Angie throw away the scarf Matt gave her once she and the girls have seen him depart? What are the layers of meaning and feeling in that gesture? How does this scene foreshadow Alice's role in the family during the next few months?
  • If your husband or partner were gone for a year, how would you cope with the day-to-day challenges of raising a family: homework, yard work, bills, plumbing, financial worry? How would you handle the emotional hardship and loneliness?
  • Did you find yourself judging Angie for her behavior? If so, why?
  • Did you and your father share any passionate common interests as Alice and Matt do with their garden?
  • Do the "old-fashioned" rites of passage that we see in this book, such as Alice's experience trying on the little black dress, still exist among the young girls whom you know? Or are girls becoming sexualized at such an early age that these moments of innocence to adulthood are being lost?
  • How do you raise the kind of teenager who would reach out to an unpopular classmate going through a hard time?
  • How are Mrs. Grover and Mrs. Minty different from Angie? What does Alice learn from these women? What does she learn from Angie?
  • On p. 137, Sergeant Ames tells Angie that "hope is a powerful thing." Do you agree? How does this relate to Mrs. Minty's idea of a "climate of expectation" (p. 198)?
  • After the funeral service, Alice finally does something reckless and impulsive without worrying about others. How does it change her?
  • If someone in your family were to pass away, what are the rituals that you might create to honor their memory?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 6, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Will Break Your Heart and Put It Back Together Again

    Alice Bliss is one of those sincere, slow-moving, but rewarding and well-written novels. It centers on the Bliss family - 15 year old Alice in particular - who are struggling with life after the family's patriarch and Alice's father, Matt, ships off to war. The novel is very much a character-driven story; its driving force being Alice and her actions, reactions, and emotions about her father's deployment; with her mother Angie, her younger sister Ellie, Gram, Uncle Eddie, and best friend Henry all contributing to Alice's life without Matt in it.

    Alice comes off as very young in the beginning of the book, so much so that I didn't realize she was a high school student. As her voice takes hold though, it's evident. Her love and closeness to her father are also brought into striking focus. Alice adores her father and life without him is killing her. She is close to Matt, he understands her, he shows his love for her in ways that Angie never does. This brings out the age old quarrels in the mother/daughter relationship. Alice and Angie do not get along. They love each, but they don't really like each other all that much. Matt's absence only heightens the tension in their relationship.

    Alice wavers between sadness and anger towards her father, missing him, but hating him for leaving her. She loses the person she was before he left, just as her mother does. The two of them don't know who they are in the absence of the person that means so much to them. For Alice, this time is full of growth. She begins to realize that she's not a little girl anymore. She's strong, despite her tears, weak, in spite of her independence. It's this push and pull that fully immerses the reader in her life.

    Laura Harrington skillfully captures the ups and downs of family and the good and bad in every relationship. Matt is overseas, fighting a war, missing in a war, and Angie can barely bring herself to cook dinner for her children. She's shut down because she's lonely and scared and has no idea how to raise a hormonal, attitudinal, and angry 15 year old, while still caring for a precocious 8 year old, a house, working her job, and paying the bills. She's lost. This feeling resonates well throughout Alice Bliss, bringing the reader to a precipice of emotion.

    Told in the passage of days, weeks, months, with letters to and from Matt interspersed throughout, Alice Bliss will grab ahold of the reader's heart and squeeze until you can do nothing else but hold onto its characters and hope for the best. Each chapter, each day that passes, brings more sorrow and more uncertainty for the Bliss' that are left behind, but the resounding message of hope, despite insurmountable odds, is felt in every turn of the page; in every imagined or remembered word from a father to a daughter, a husband to a wife.

    Alice Bliss is a heartbreaking and moving portrayal of a family trapped in a war that's both far from home and right at their front door. Laura Harrington has broken down the walls that separate those unaffected by war from those who live with it every day, by dropping every insecurity, every fear, every nightmare, and every hope in the laps of readers with Alice Bliss. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll yearn for closure that seems so out of reach, but you'll appreciate how each downfall leads to an ultimately uplifting end.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 7, 2011

    I Also Recommend:


    "Alice Bliss" is a story that will touch the hearts and souls of every American reader, every family that has ever lost someone to war. Matt Bliss wanted to live life taking care of his family but he felt he owed something to his country. This is a heartbreaking and moving portrayal of a family trapped in a war that's both far from home and also right in front of them. The family is faced with insecurity, fear, every imaginable nightmare, but ultimately hope. A character-driven story, Alice, a 15 year old girl is the major protagonist, her actions, reactions, and emotions about her father's deployment, with her mother, Angie, her younger sister, Ellie, Gram, Uncle Eddie, and best friend, Henry, all playing a significant part in Alice's life without "Dad" in it. This is a moving story that certainly is befitting our lives in America at the moment.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Ask yourself every day - what can I do to support the military and their family?

    When Matt Bliss made good choices to support his country as well as his family he never imagined the impact it would have on any of them. Joining the Army National Guard provided extra income, which everyone saw as a plus until the reality of war came knocking and Matt was called up to serve because they desperately needed boots on the ground, even those filled by an Engineer.

    His wife is unsure how to cope without him and his daughter's especially seventh grader Alice cannot deal with their father being away. Alice and her father have always been close and having him not there to discuss the garden layout or work on a project is breaking her heart. He wants to share his life with her but Matt knows he has to keep in mind he may not be there to do that and Alice try as she might does not want to hear any of this.

    Matt ships off and those left at home take on new roles and personalities especially Alice who quickly has to become an adult and take over running the house to help her mother out even though she is still just a child trying to figure out how to deal with middle school. Alice has great friends who stick with her and she maneuvers the landmine that is her new life but nothing will ever be the same regardless of the outcome.

    What Matt wanted most was letters from home "something to carry with him close to his heart" and Matt wanted to leave letters to his family so he filled journals with letters and notes to his daughters so at every critical point in their life they have his wisdom to take with them.

    This is not Matt or Alice's story alone it is the real life of every soldier who leaves their family knowing they may never come back and everyone it impacts. It is truly the most difficult book I have ever read and it is a great story that we should all understand. I had a hard time reviewing it because it breaks my heart writing words that can never give you the complete emotion impact of how real this story is to some family right now. But you should read this book and you should remind yourself that if you are not doing something to support the men and women who are defending the rights we are so fond of, then maybe it is time you did.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 15, 2013

    well written, touchingly heartbreaking,

    well written, touchingly heartbreaking,

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  • Posted June 11, 2012

    Keep the Kleenex handy

    The tears flowed while reading this book. Highly recommend keeping Kleenex nearby!

    I do not believe I have ever read a book written in the point of view of a teenager. What a great experience! I could feel what she was feeling as I am a mother to a teenager.

    This book shows the intimate story of a family whose father is called to active duty in a time of war. Laura Harrington amazing book, Alice Bliss, tells the life story of a teenage “Daddy’s Girl”, Alice Bliss, struggling with her father, Matt, being shipped out of upstate New York with his National Guard unit to Iraq. She misses all the time they spent playing baseball, working in the garden, and helping him with an occasional working job. She realizes life does go on even if her dad isn’t there to witness it. Alice joins the track team, attends her first dance, and falls in love, all while missing her dad terribly. The change from tomboy to young woman was very poignant. Alice, while trying to remain strong, finds that she has to take care of her sister and her mother. The mother, Angie, seems to drop the ball a few times I found I could not blame her. Ellie, Alice’s younger sister, appears to not be as affected but definitely feels the loss of her dad and becomes closer to her mother.

    In this book you hear and feel the ups and downs that a family goes through when the father is called to active duty in a time of war. I was in tears reading Alice Bliss. Trying to imagine ho w I would react and keep my life going in I was put in this position tugged at my heart. Alice Bliss tells the story of what many families in America are going through. It opened my eyes and made me appreciate the families of military persons.

    If you manage to make it through the book without tears you can still feel all the fear, loneliness, and losses of the Bliss Family. You can also feel the love and the hope they have for each other.

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  • Posted May 11, 2012


    A truly factual account of what life is really like for children and spouses of deployed loved ones. A must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2012

    Don't buy this book!

    We read this book for school, may possibly be the worst book i've ever read. He characters were so selfish and angry, and reading i third person gets old really quickly. I would not by any means reccomend this book.

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  • Posted October 20, 2011

    Alice Bliss is a must read.We shouldn't forget there's more to the story.

    Alice Bliss is a superbly written story about a young girl - a teenager - dealing with her father joining the Army reserves and then being activated and sent to Iraq. It's about a tightly knit and happy family - mom Angie, dad Matt, Alice, and her younger sister Ellie. We're given insight into how Matt prepares his family for his leaving. He makes lists of things that need to be done. Of people to call and how to plant the garden. He writes letters for them to read on certain occasions should he not return. It's the story of a family adjusting to a husband's and father's absence and how each has new roles to play in the family. Alice struggles with the normal teenager's angst as well as dealing with her mother and sister and her fear her father won't return. Who handles repairs to the house and the car? Who just helps? It's about a family preparing for the 'what if'. What if he doesn't come back? You can make your lists, make a will, and know who to call, but how do you really prepare? You'll find yourself crying as you read this story. And you should. We mourn the loss of our soldiers, the men and women of the military who serve to protect our freedoms. But what do we do for those left behind as their loved ones head off to war - the moms and dads, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters? What do we do for them to let them know we won't forget? How do we help them when their loved ones are gone? Alice Bliss came highly recommended to me. I pass that recommendation on to you. It's a read well worth your time.

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  • Posted October 19, 2011

    As Ellie (a character in the book) would say, Alice Bliss is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

    Alice Bliss is a heartwarming, bittersweet coming-of-age story against the backdrop of the Iraq war. Laura Harrington's writing style is effortless as she captures the essence of a young teen grappling with responsibilities and difficult life lessons beyond her years. The book shows that "it takes a village" to help a family overcome a personal tragedy. Keep a box of tissues handy, as you will quickly be drawn to the characters' plight as I was, reading through my tears. Alice Bliss will resonate with you long after turning the last page.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2011


    It has been a long time since I read a book that not only I could treasure, but my 14 year old daughter could as well. Both of us could relate to the characters who vividly jump from the pages. Without lecturing, the reader feels the happiness and pain these characters feel as they meet the challenges of every day life. Even those truly difficult challenges that military families endure on a daily basis. This is one of those books that stays with you and I couldn't pick up another book to read for a week as I needed time to digest this one. If you are looking for a thought provoking, endearing book, this is for you.

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  • Posted July 31, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Posted July 9, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Have a box of Kleenexs handy...a must read...Being the wife of a deployed military personel and the mother of a teenager it gives you a new outlook

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2012

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