Book Review: March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women

Recently a small book of essays titled March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women was released, written by prominent female authors. There are four essays in all, each dedicated to a March sister. Written in a memoir format, each writer reflects upon a sister using her own life experiences for comparison and backdrop.

From the book’s summary:

  • Kate Bolick finds parallels in oldest sister Meg’s brush with glamour at the Moffats’ ball and her own complicated relationship with clothes.
  • Jenny Zhang confesses to liking Jo least among the sisters when she first read the novel as a girl, uncomfortable in finding so much of herself in a character she feared was too unfeminine.
  • Carmen Maria Machado writes about the real-life tragedy of Lizzie Alcott, the inspiration for third sister Beth, and the horror story that can result from not being the author of your own life’s narrative.
  • Jane Smiley rehabilitates the reputation of youngest sister Amy, whom she sees as a modern feminist role model for those of us who are, well, not like the fiery Jo.

I will address each essay:

“Meg’s Frock Shock”

I had a difficult time getting through this essay; it just didn’t hold my interest. A lot of it focused on the writer herself and did not have a lot to do with Meg. There were parallels, to be sure, (Ms. Bolick experienced a “vanity fair” moment like Meg) but I found myself anxious to move on from her story and get into what she thought about Meg. Although Meg’s marriage was mentioned (Ms. Bolick wondered how an ambivalent spinster like Alcott would approach the matter), the focus was on Meg’s dalliance with her “castle in the air” during her stay with the wealthy Moffats. The last three pages tied together Meg’s experience of being dolled up (and taking on a new persona) with the author’s, with Ms. Bolick commenting that “the most we can ask from the people in our lives is that, no matter what, when they see us grow or change in an unexpected direction, they stand aside and let it happen.”

“Does Genius Burn, Jo?”

I looked forward to reading this essay because I did not like Jo the first time I read Little Women. Ms. Zhang’s reasons were intriguing: “Was my reaction because I saw parts of myself in Jo and didn’t like what I saw? Did other people see me the way I saw her — annoying, delusional, unwilling to grow up, stubbornly clinging to her childish dreams? It was through Jo that I finally tapped into the mindset of the very people I had been rebelling against: my parents.” Unfortunately the bulk of the essay then turned into a rant about women and “the hellish prison that is the capitalist cis-hetero patriarchy.” It’s a take on Little Women that I am finding tiresome only because it has been covered over and over again. The author also took to using swear words in her writing which I found vulgar; call me a prude but I do not believe such words belong in a serious essay, even if it is memoir (however, I do think its judicious usage in fictional dialogue is fine). Ms. Zhang’s essay seemed combative, turning off this reader. I wish those intriguing insights in the beginning had gone in a different direction.

“A Dear and Nothing Else.”

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

This was my favorite of the essays (and admittedly the one I read first given my interest in Beth/Lizzie). Carmen Machado is one of the few who has given Lizzie’s life serious consideration (first of all by calling her Lizzie rather than Beth). Her ideas were original, causing me to take a second look at Lizzie’s letters (disclaimer: Ms. Machado kindly cited me at the end of the book). She noted Lizzie’s quirky sense of humor which Louisa had in fact, noted in chapter one of Little Women. She also discussed at length Lizzie’s display of anger near the end of her life, documented in letters by Anna and Louisa. Just a few Alcott scholars have written on it (Martha Saxton, Susan Cheever) while many have assumed that Lizzie was as perfect as Beth. If anything, this consideration of Lizzie diminishes Beth in her essay because Beth never shows such fire. This essay, like the others, was heavy on memoir but in this case, it was necessary to know something about the author for it explains her unique insight.

“I am your ‘Prudent Amy’”

This essay seems to be the favorite of most critics for it gives serious treatment to the youngest sister who, in the minds of many readers, can never be forgiven for burning Jo’s manuscript. Jane Smiley however, demonstrates how Amy (perhaps more than Jo) takes hold of the reins of her life and directs it as she wishes; she gets what she wants because she makes it happen. Ms. Smiley traces Amy’s life step by step, arguing as a lawyer would to prove her case (and she does). I surprised myself in wishing there had been more memoir to this essay but only a small portion was devoted to the author’s life. In looking back over old blog posts of mine, I had written that Amy was my favorite sister after my first reading of Little Women because of how she had grown into a gracious and generous young woman who knows her own mind and heart. Ms. Smiley’s essay argues this beautifully.

General impressions

In the end, I have mixed feelings about March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Women, liking the latter half but not the first half. But I still consider it worth the read.

At the risk of sounding like I am self promoting (as I have an essay in this book), I would like to suggest reading Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy published by Pink Umbrella as it includes many thoughtful essays about the sisters.


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3 Replies to “Book Review: March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women”

  1. Yes, I totally agree about the first two essays of the book and for the same reasons! I also agree about the last two: those I really did enjoy, and particularly about Amy because it is very relateable; I think most women would like some sort of “progress” in life but are not as fiery as Jo.
    I recall that when I first read LW I loved all the sisters but each annoyed me for a different reason: Meg was a wet blanket, Jo overdid the tomboy act (my mother wanted me to be like Jo and not be interested in nylon hose, training bras and cosmetics), Beth was too good (“Let’s all get something for her and not get anything for ourselves” – ouch!), and Amy was often a pill. At any rate, it was interesting to see what people of a younger generation had to say about my all-time favorite book!

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