is a 2011 coming-of-age novel by American playwright and author Laura Harrington. It follows the Bliss family after father Matt’s National Guard reserve unit is called up to fight in Iraq. While mom Angie struggles to cope, daughter Alice must try to pick up the slack and keep her father’s presence alive, while also coping with the onset of adolescence and first love. Harrington, who teaches playwriting at MIT, first treated this material in her one-act, one-woman musical Alice Unwrapped
. Her own father fought in World War II and suffered from PTSD upon his return.
Fifteen-year-old Alice Bliss has a difficult relationship with her mother—with the best of intentions, they seem to end up fighting every time they speak—but she is extremely close to her beloved father, Matt. He is a salt-of-the-earth guy who spends most of his spare time in his workshop or working in his garden. Alice loves to keep him company. They like to throw a baseball around, and Alice even accompanies her dad to the occasional roofing job when she is not in school.
Having such a close relationship with her dad makes life easier for Alice, who is just entering the awkward, hormonal phase of adolescence. Her eight-year-old sister, Ellie is quirky and precocious, and Alice alternates between feeling responsible for her and annoyed with her. Neither of these helps Alice’s relationship with her mom.
One day, Matt is called up to fight in Iraq. He is a National Guard reservist, but no one in his family ever expected that he might ever be required to fight. Matt considers it his duty to serve his country, but he knows it is going to take its toll on his family.
Mom Angie is hit especially hard. She tries to distract herself from her fear and loneliness by throwing herself into her career in insurance, with the result that things begin to fall apart at home. Alice tries her best to pick up the slack: doing the laundry, looking after Ellie, and performing other chores, but she resents it, and she has limited success. The role that comes more naturally to her is to fill her dad’s shoes. She takes a favorite blue shirt of Matt’s and begins to wear it every day. She claims his workshop as her own and spends most of her time there. Gradually, she begins to take on some of her dad’s jobs, planting the garden, and learning to drive.
At the same time, however, Alice’s relationship with her mother worsens, as both women struggle to cope with Matt’s absence. Alice and Angie look beyond the family for support: to Angie’s mother, Penelope Pearl Bird (or “Gram”), who owns a coffee shop in town, and to Uncle Eddie, Angie’s fun-loving brother.
Above all, Alice leans more and more on Henry Grover, a childhood best friend who lives down the street from the Bliss family. A geeky boy who loves jazz, Henry doesn’t know how to deal with Alice’s powerful and complex feelings about her family situation. He means well but tends to try to find solutions to insoluble problems. Nevertheless, Alice values his support, and as time goes by, she starts to wonder if she has romantic feelings for him.
This situation gets more complex when another boy, John, admits a romantic interest in Alice. John is as kind and sensitive as Henry, but older and more popular. Alice is torn between the two, but all the while her real longing is for Matt: "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." The blue work shirt she wears every day no longer smells of her father. He can only call very occasionally, and the calls are so short they’re almost worse than no call at all.
As Alice struggles to choose between Henry and John, her worst fear comes to pass. Matt is declared Missing in Action.
As the Bliss family waits for news, their loved ones gather round. Gram and Uncle Eddie help Alice and Angie to struggle past their differences and console one another.
When they learn that Matt has died, Alice demonstrates her new maturity by pledging to keep her father alive through the garden and the other rituals she has inherited from him. In her grief, she also recognizes the true value of Henry’s feelings, and the two teens take a step in the direction of a real relationship.Alice Bliss
explores a teenage girl’s coming of age, alongside themes of love, grief, and impact of the Iraq War on American communities. A “moving debut about loss and survival” (Publishers’ Weekly
) as well as an “uplifting (and apolitical) approach to [a] topical subject,” (Kirkus Reviews
), Alice Bliss
is suitable for older teenage readers and adults alike.