Note: I received an advance copy of this book from the author for review purposes.
Lounging on my wicker love seat with the koi pond (and its sprinkling fountain) in view, I had a most enjoyable summer read with The Other Alcott, a novel about May Alcott by Elise Hooper.
May Alcott fleshed out
Abigail May Alcott, the prototype for Amy March in Little Women comes across in this debut novel by Hooper as vivacious, ambitious and thoughtful, struggling to be seen in her own right as an artistic talent as well as a viable, caring woman. Living in the shadow of her famous (and older by eight years) sister Louisa, May encounters the problems of all the “babies” in families: that of being taken seriously.
The book opens with the family receiving the first reviews of Little Women including the less than sterling comments about May’s illustrations. Devastated, May attempts to hide her shame from Louisa who, in typical older sisterly fashion, minimizes the critique commenting,
“I know it must be a bit of a shock since everything always seems to go your way, but you’ll recover. Somehow I always do.”
She then abruptly changes the subject, asking about May’s current beau, Joshua Bishop. After everyone has left the house, May tears apart her sketchbook and burns the pages in frustration.
This incident sets up the core of the novel: the tension between sisters who are similar in temperament, and the younger sister’s feelings about achieving her ambition and proving herself to her family.
In reading May Alcott’s letters, one gets the sense that she did not grapple from angst. More guarded and perhaps less introspective than Anna and Louisa, she kept up a cheerful facade. One forgets that she too had her inner struggles. Hooper does a good job of imagining May’s doubts, regrets and struggles. She comes across as well-rounded, real and very likeable.
For example we see May galled over her portrayal in Little Women as the selfish, vane and pretentious Amy. Her anger is soothed by sketching:
“When she sketched, it felt as though she had a fever, a good fever, a fever that warmed her insides and made the rest of the world melt away …”
In the midst of that pleasure, she knows it’s make or break time:
“If she stopped creating, what was left? A slow slide into spinsterhood? She’d be stuck in Concord forever … She needed her art …”
Art, love and sacrifice
Pursuing art as a profession required sacrifice especially when it came to relationships. Joshua Bishop, her love interest, is charming, wealthy and kind; if May had truly been Amy March, he would have been her Laurie. But May knew Joshua could not abide her artistic ambition. This set up her relationship with future husband Ernest Nieriker towards the end of the book, one of my favorite parts. Ernest comes to life as charming and thoughtful with a keen sense of fun. As a talented musician he can empathize with May’s artistic self. Hooper presents a deeper and more realistic relationship than what we can gather from May’s letters to the family.
Sisters, sisters …
The most complex was her relationship with Louisa, the older sister, the family breadwinner and May’s only means of support. Louisa, who was temperamental, often condescending and jealous of May’s streak of supposed “good luck.” Hooper paints their relationship as close but difficult at times — a portrayal of competing siblings who love each and their their family deeply.
Europe and professional growth
Hooper describes the course of May’s art education in Europe, again providing the struggle that was missing from May’s accounts to her family. There were times when being the sister of the world famous Louisa May Alcott was costly as May discovers in one escapade with an instructor. May’s budding relationships with other professional women artists (including Mary Cassatt) were especially satisfying; Hooper employed these relationships well to explore the world of professional art for women. These relationships would enable May to find the confidence to pursue her art without her sister’s help.
Hooper takes editorial liberty with facts in order to craft a better story, and she explains her choices at the end of the novel. I would highly recommend reading her comments before embarking on the book so as to take that liberty with her. Hooper’s choices are logical, making for a more compelling read.
As much as I loved The Other Alcott, I was disappointed with the ending. I became quite involved with May and knowing how the story actually ended, prepared myself for a good cry. That did not happen. I don’t want to completely spoil the ending but suffice it to say that I did not find it satisfying.
That being said, I still highly recommend The Other Alcott. It reads quickly, sweeping you into May Alcott’s world of nineteenth century art, love, Europe and Louisa May Alcott. I will remember it fondly as the first book I read on my new patio in front of the koi pond — a fitting way to break in my new favorite reading place.
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