Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Little Women

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
Recommended Ages: 12+

I don't know whether the book I read is the first installment of a trilogy, continued in Little Men and Jo's Boys, or an omnibus edition of the first two books in a quartet. Some, after all, count Part 2 as a separate book, titled Good Wives. But the plot of the two or three movie adaptations I have seen of it over the years seems to take it for granted the title Little Women covers both parts of this American classic, originally published in two volumes in 1868 and -69 and frequently, then and now, published in one volume under the same title as Part 1.

This is the already well-known story of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, set during and a little after the U.S. Civil War. Their parents are minor lights in the intellectual firmament of greater Boston. Their neighbors are a lonely boy named Laurie and his crusty grandfather. Their girlhood adventures take place mostly in their imagination, a communal imagination that takes the form of homespun melodramas (inspired by Shakespeare) and the minutes of a fancied gentleman's club (inspired by Dickens). They put up with being poor and unfashionable at a time when a young woman's hopes could be staked on a ball gown or a chaperoned tour of Europe. One of them suffers a slow, lingering death; one of them finds success as a writer; three of them find love; they all learn lessons about being good and happy women.

I also don't know for sure what to make of its author's express criticism of both moralizing children's fiction and sentimental romances, since at times it has features of both - little preachy passages and soft-focus passages of nostalgia, wooing by indifferently developed male characters and tear-jerking accounts of grief and loss. But at the same time it spotlights a non-traditional female protagonist, sets her up for an unconventional match with a whiskery, middle-aged German professor whose name (Bhaer) is vaguely suggestive of his shape, and turns an only slightly rose-tinted lens on the author's extraordinary real-life family. It isn't as radical or revolutionary as some would have liked, but its originality and straightforwardness have kept it fresh, with a voice that speaks to today's people.

To generations of fans, this book hardly needs an introduction. It has already stood a test of time, has sold lots of copies, and has been more than sufficiently dramatized and filmed. My endorsement cannot help it and my criticism, if I had the hubris to offer any, could not hurt it. From the perspective of catching up on required reading (better late than never), the most useful thing I can say about it is that it went down easily, with a pleasing aftertaste and more than one powerful throb of sympathy, in the audio-book format read by Barbara Caruso. I might even have wept, just a little.

From the "why fans of Harry Potter may also love this" standpoint, I could note many points of comparison between L. M. Alcott (at least as she portrays herself in the character of Jo March) and J. K. Rowling. Jo (March or Rowling, take your pick) takes an unconventional path toward being a successful writer. Meantime she lives a modest private life, rich in disappointments and surprises. As for Alcott herself, she spent the brief interval between the two volumes of this work fielding fan theories about who the March girls would end up marrying, only to do her best to thwart the shippers with romantic surprises - or rather, and perhaps even better, unromantic ones. The way Amy and Laurie come to their understanding (oops, spoiler!) is one example. Jo's walk with Bhaer through the Boston mud is another. Time has proved these understated touches to have more heart in them than a dozen swoony demonstrations of highly fraught passion.

And if, at times, Alcott sometimes lapses into something like a Unitarian tract, she has the excuse of dealing with characters whose imagination was formed, in part, by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the transcendental philosophers of mid-19th-century New England. This novel is, in a way, the culture of that bunch distilled into popular literature. And though, to this day, it remains more "popular" than "literature," there is nothing to sneer at in that. There is a sound reason why I have read everything by Dickens and stopped reading Joyce after one novel. It is like the reason A.S. Byatt's sneer upon J.K. Rowling has gone to fewer hearts than Stephen King's praise of her. The best in a nation's literature may sometimes be more on the order of popular entertainment than technically perfect art work. What finally matters is whether, after a good deal of time has passed, a book is still widely loved and rewards those who read it with pleasure. Little Women, in spite of what its critics may say about it, has made the cut.

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