Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Alice Bliss"

Laura Harrington's award winning plays, musicals, operas, and radio plays have been widely produced in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. Harrington is a two time winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and a two time winner of the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England for Mercy and Hallowed Ground.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Alice Bliss, and reported the following:
Would a reader skimming page 69 be inclined to read on?
 Is it representative of the rest of the book? At first I thought, oh no, it’s such a quiet scene. It’s not a turning point, per se, but this book isn’t really about turning points as much as it’s about the deepening of a situation. The book is about the daily pain and uncertainty of a family who has a loved one away at war; the worry, the constant awareness of a father’s absence, the way all relationships shift and morph because of that absence, and the way an older child will be leaned on and relied upon to help take care of things. It’s also about family and how family pulls together, and it’s full of humor, as you’ll see with Ellie. So yes, I’d have to say this scene is representative of the rest of the book.

Page 69 finds Alice, 15, her sister Ellie, 8, and Gram just after Ellie has gotten a haircut that changes her appearance completely. Her braids are gone, saved in an envelope for her mother, and she has a Louise Brooks style bob with very short bangs. Now they are looking for eyeglass frames because Ellie needs glasses.

This deceptively simple scene, through inference, expresses the difficult changes they are undergoing because of Matt’s absence (their father, deployed to Iraq). These errands are happening with Gram instead of Mom, as they usually would, because Mom is working longer hours. Alice’s growing sense of responsibility with Matt gone and her deepening anxiety over fulfilling those responsibilities is the emotional undercurrent that drives the scene.
At the eyeglass place Ellie is not happy with the selection they have for kids. She pulls out her picture and gives it to the guy behind the counter. He’s incredulous, but goes to the locked cabinet with the designer frames and hands her a pair. She tries them on. The lenses are elongated rectangles and the frames are dark green plastic.

“Too big,” Gram says, thinking that will be that.

But Ellie studies her reflection in the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to keep the glasses from sliding off her face and not having much luck. Alice suddenly has this stab of fear for Ellie. With this haircut and these glasses she will be teased mercilessly; Alice has already swallowed several choice phrases rather then throw them at Ellie. But now that she’s actually looking at her she can see that Ellie is really skinny, maybe even skinnier than usual, and pale, super pale, like maybe she’s coming down with the flu or something, or maybe she’s not sleeping well or eating well and Alice thinks maybe she hasn’t been paying attention to the right things and maybe she should be paying more attention to her sister, and how is she ever going to manage with one more thing to worry about?

“Can you order these in a smaller size?” Ellie asks the clerk.

“Sure. We can have them for you in a week.”

“How much are they?” Gram asks.

“Three fifty.”

“Three hundred and fifty?” Ellie asks.

A tight-lipped smile from the clerk.

“Thanks so much,” Gram says, ushering them out the door.

In the car, holding the envelope with her braids in it, Ellie is unusually quiet. Even when Gram gets to talking about the chickens she’s thinking of getting and the chicken coop Uncle Eddie has promised to build for her, even though knowing Uncle Eddie, that could take another year, and how Ellie is going to be her right hand girl in the chicken-and-egg business. Ellie and Gram love chickens. Alice does not find chickens remotely appealing, let alone lovable, but Gram keeps telling her: “You just wait and see. When we get our first baby chicks …”

“eBay,” Ellie says out of the blue. “Second hand stores. We have some options.”

“What are you talking about?” Alice asks.

“I’m not giving up on those glasses.”
Read an excerpt from Alice Bliss, and learn more about the book and author at Laura Harrington's website and blog.

Writers Read: Laura Harrington.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue