Book review: The Little Women Letters captures the essence of Alcott in the here and now

Sigh. Another good friend to bid adieu to. That’s how I felt when I finished The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly. I became very attached to the London-based Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) and their family and friends and appreciated the guiding hand of “Grandma Jo,” aka Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

“New letters” by Jo March

That’s right. In this story, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Marmee are true characters and ancestors of the Atwaters. Lulu accidentally comes upon letters in her parents’ attic by a young Jo as depicted in Little Women, and finds solace, guidance, understanding and camaraderie from her great-great grandmother when she needs it most.

Donnelly obviously loved Little Women and was fully immersed in it as demonstrated by the authentic air of these letters by Jo. It felt like Louisa had written a secret extra set of chapters for Little Women which made these letters seem extra delicious.

Among the most touching were the letters written to “Bethie” after she had died. It struck me as a most logical way for Jo to work through her grief by writing her dear sister letters as if she were here to read them.

Donnelly uses the letters to set up different scenarios in the plot which covers a turning point year in the life of the three sisters.

The Atwater sisters versus the March sisters

Obviously the sisters are fashioned after the little women:

  • Emma is the practically-minded, domestic efficient Meg, who like Meg, has a weakness for the finer things. She is getting married to Matthew.
  • Sophie is the spoiled, blond, curly-haired “drama queen” (she is in fact, an actress) modeled after Amy. Her year is, not surprisingly, full of drama both fun and deadly serious.
  • Lulu is the awkward, too-tall, very intellectually gifted one fashioned after Jo, and finds solace in Jo’s letters. Although she graduated from university with a first class degree in biochemistry, she had no desire to become a scientist and is groping in the dark, trying to find her career path.

Donnelly decided not to have a “Beth” sister which was probably a smart move. It would have been difficult to conjure up a contemporary Beth that would have been believable.

Alike but not exact

Yet, the sisters are not carbon copies. Emma seems less matronly than Meg and keeps some interesting company.

Sophie’s art is in acting, not drawing, and she hasn’t yet quite evolved to the gracious womanhood that Amy attained. But she does show signs of it.

And Lulu has no clue what she wants to do with her life although she is obviously gifted. And no, she is not a writer.

Meeting more characters

Fee and David Atwater, the parents, are an interesting match. Fee is more like Abba Alcott than Marmee, a fierce feminist who lived in a collective as a young woman. Now a family therapist, she originally came from Boston and is the family connection to Jo.

David is a man with the famous British dry wit who swept Fee away from Boston to London for a new life. His long-running joke is to compare her to imaginary wife “Claire,” a woman who questions nothing, asks for nothing, and dotes constantly on David. His work takes him to places all around the world.

There are many entertaining sub-characters, but I will leave it to you to read the book and meet them. Emma’s friend Nigel Manolete, an aspiring shoe designer, is my favorite.

The strength of The Little Women Letters

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

Besides the authenticity of the letters from Jo, my favorite parts of the book were the conversations. This is the first book I’ve ever read where the conversations were so engaging that I didn’t miss the narrative. Dialog is always my least favorite part of any book because they rarely seem to move the story along. No so in this case.

Donnelly has a terrific “gift of gab.” Even though she had many brothers and no sisters, the dialog between the Atwater sisters is very real. Lots of teasing, barbs and wit so typical between siblings pepper the conversations. The humor in this story is well placed and very entertaining.

Perfect summer read . . . any movie plans?

The Little Women Letters is the perfect summer read. As mentioned in a previous post, it’s the one book I’ve read at the gym that made me forget about the pain and sweating of doing the elliptical. I will sure miss this friend!

I hope plans are in the works for a movie. It would be perfect for the Lifetime channel.

Check out Gabrielle Donnelly’s website and read the interview – it’s very informative.

Have you read The Little Women Letters yet? What did you think?

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7 Replies to “Book review: The Little Women Letters captures the essence of Alcott in the here and now”

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