This review is way overdue! The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, the debut novel of Kelly O’Connor McNees, was the book that began my current reading binge last May. My husband, bless his heart, found this book and bought it for me and I will always be grateful. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott then led to my reading of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen (something I had had on my bookshelf since February), and then this blog was born.
The reading of these two books was a watershed moment for me, opening up a world of reading I had not known since I was a child. I had gone on reading binges before, always about Louisa, but it usually stopped after just one book and I only read biographies. I had never read anything in her own words, mainly because of the archaic language and my own poor reading skills.
That changed after I read The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. For the first time, I felt like I was inside the head and heart of Louisa. Her voice began to speak to me in a new way. The book swept me along like a rushing river; it read so easily and pulled me under. I felt engulfed by it and when I finished, I felt empty with a tremendous longing for something more. I then read Reisen’s book which lead to Louisa’ Hospital Sketches and I was hooked: I had to read anything and everything Louisa had written and couldn’t wait to write about it myself.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a fictional account, a “what if” story taking place in the summer of 1855, in Walpole, MA where the Alcott family spent a summer. McNees had always wanted to write a novel and like so many of us Alcott enthusiasts, was deeply drawn into Louisa’s story, especially after reading Martha Saxton’s Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography. A quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, proved to be the trigger: “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew. Yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it?”
McNees noticed in her research that despite the volumes of letters and journal entries, there was hardly any mention of that summer of 1855 in Walpole. She wrote, “The lack of historical information made it the perfect setting for the story: a lost summer in Louisa’s life.” The addition of the publishing of Walt Whitman’s classic Leaves of Green that summer set up her story perfectly.
In McNees’ story, Louisa is 22 and the family is living in Walpole thanks to the charity of a friend. Louisa meets Joseph Singer and the two (with many starts and stops) enjoy a brief and fiery romance. McNees allows us into the mind of Louisa as she wrestles with her desire for freedom to become a writer versus love and marriage, coupled with with all requirements of being a New England woman in the mid 19th century.
I found Louisa to be a difficult young woman – tremendously passionate, often angry, very emotional (yet very guarded too), sometimes rude and yet full of vitality and life. I’ve read McNees’ book twice, the first time having not read Little Women, and just now as I am finishing up Little Women. Having come to know Jo, I do see the very clear parallels between Jo and Louisa (not that that surprises me) and it made the reading of Lost Summer even more satisfying the second time around.
Just about all the book is very believable. I did have trouble with one part (which I won’t give away here) where I questioned whether or not Louisa would have acted that way. It was more believable in the second reading, but I still have my doubts.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is historical fiction in every sense. McNees carefully researched the era she wrote about, including many wonderful details about daily life such as candle making and cooking, along with the tremendous burdens of propriety that women had to live up to. I thought I heard her own voice every once in a while in the text which I found intriguing. Reading the hardcover version of this book is a wonderful tactile experience for the paper used is deliberately old-fashioned in appearance and touch.
I felt just as empty finishing the book this time as I did the last time. It really left me wanting more!
Be sure and pick up a copy of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott – this is a must read for fan of Louisa May Alcott.
I will soon be posting an interview that I did with Kelly O’Connor McNees about this book so stay tuned. You can find out more information about McNees at her website, http://kellyoconnormcnees.com.