Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Published: Roberts Brothers, 1868
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Synopsis: Little Women is one of the best loved books of all time. Lovely Meg, talented Jo, frail Beth, spoiled Amy: these are hard lessons of poverty and of growing up in New England during the Civil War. Through their dreams, plays, pranks, letters, illnesses, and courtships, women of all ages have become a part of this remarkable family and have felt the deep sadness when Meg leaves the circle of sisters to be married at the end of Part I. Part II, chronicles Meg's joys and mishaps as a young wife and mother, Jo's struggle to become a writer, Beth's tragedy, and Amy's artistic pursuits and unexpected romance. Based on Louise May Alcott's childhood, this lively portrait of nineteenth-century family life possesses a lasting vitality that has endeared it to generations of readers.

This past week I went home for Christmas, as I often do, and got together with a few of my friends from high school. I am usually meticulously early for everything and these friends really expect that of me. They were very surprised, however, when I arrived ten minutes late. I apologized profusely and said that I got hung up reading, and they of course asked what I was reading that made me break one of my cardinal rules (early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable). When I informed them it was Little Women they all made the same sound, "Aww." It was as if I showed them a picture of Ryan Gosling holding a baby, a puppy, and a kitten. Their faces lit up with such affection.

But this is how many women feel about Louisa May Alcott's seminal classic about family, love, and life in the mid 19th Century. It is a semi-autobiographical tale of the March family, a poor but happy family living in Concord, Massachusetts (I'm such a nerd I've actually been to Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, it's actually where I bought my copy of the book). The family includes Mr. March who is off at war, the unflappable matriarch Marmee, and their four girls, beautiful Meg who wants beautiful things, headstrong and hot-tempered Jo who strives to be a writer, shy and kind Beth who has a love of music, and self-centered Amy who has a talent for art. Then there is Laurie the grandson of their neighbor who the Marches take under their wing to give him a little fun though he is shy, immature, and stubborn.

If you can tell by my explanation of the characters or you follow my twitter you know how I feel about each of the characters. But regardless of how I feel about them as individuals there is one thread that holds them all together, the need to be better and improve on their faults. I think we can all relate to this struggle to be the best person we can be, and it makes the characters incredibly likable. And, yes, the book is full of 19th century platitudes and illusions to religious ideasl but it also full of progressive reform ideas such as educational improvements, temperance, and of course women's rights. The Alcotts were part of a group of Concord reformers (including Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne) advocating the ideals of transcendentalism or being self-reliant and independent from societal institutions that serve to corrupt and that you need to look within yourself to be your best. They were incredibly idealist and had a lot of faith in the individual. Viewed in the context Little Women takes a very different tone.

But more than that it is a story of love. And we are not just talking about romantic love, it is also a story of familial love. For some of the sisters this is easier than others. But it's the challenging relationships that are the most compelling. I love the dynamic between Jo and Amy. While they do love each other, they don't often like each other. They are polar opposites with Jo's constant need to break gender norms and Amy's goal to be the perfect society woman. In Part 1 Amy is jealous of Jo for the opportunities she is able to have because she is older and Jo being so temperamental argues with Amy because of her arrogance. In Part 2 the tables are turned and Jo is jealous of Amy for the opportunities she receives often out of pure luck. This is a family dynamic that I can completely relate to, having a younger sister who is very different from me.

But of course there is the romantic love. The overarching theme, however, is that love is not really what you expect. Meg who is known for her beauty just wants to be responsible for a wealthy mansion but when she does find love it is with a poor man, Jo never thinks she will find love but she does, Amy expects to marry rich but never predicted who she would end up marrying, and Laurie who thinks he'll spend his whole life pinning for his first love who slighted him finds he is over her faster than he thought thanks to an unlikely source. I absolutely love Little Women for all this and more. It gives me all the feels. I laugh, I get angry, and I sob openly.

This is the perfect story to read during Christmastime and not only because the opening chapters are about Christmas. For me, and many people I would wager, this is a reread. I've read the book a few times, I've seen the movie a million times, I know these characters inside and out. Reading Little Women is like returning home after a long absence. It's catching up with old friends and family you haven't seen in awhile. It makes you feel warm and fuzzy and rejuvenates the soul. It's like puppies, or kittens, it's like Christmas!

What are your thoughts on Little Women? Leave me a comment and if you haven't read Little Women, seriously get on that! Happy Reading!

1 comment:

  1. I read Little Women years ago and loved it. This is a book that I definitely need to reread sometime soon.