Book review: “Meg and Jo” by Virginia Kantra

I am pleased to present this guest post by Kristi Lynn Martin, PhD: her review of this novel based on Little Women.

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Virginia Kantra’s Meg and Jo: A Contemporary Retelling of Little Women  (New York: Berkley, 2019) is a modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (original published in two parts in 1868 and 1869). Like the original novel on which it is based, Kantra’s story will also be told over the course of two books, with a second novel,  Beth and Amy forthcoming.  Meg and Jo is told in alternating character perspectives by the oldest two March sisters.

Kantra resets the nineteenth-century New England classic in Bunyan, North Carolina, the first of many literary references for Alcott fans, honoring the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, which is an important literary framework in Little Women. The southern setting gives Kantra a fresh source of old-fashioned charm in which to situate the modern March sister’s challenges to conventional society.  While Little Women is an adolescent coming-of-age story, Meg and Jo begins in young adulthood. Meg has given up her career to be a stay-at-home mom to her twin toddlers and Jo is trying to make it as a food blogger in New York City. Beth and Amy are both away from home commencing their own adventures in young adulthood, as a musician and an artist.

New readers and Alcott enthusiasts alike will be charmed by the characters. Kantra has thoughtfully captured Alcott’s originals, while bringing a new relevance to their struggles in self-discovery and the forging of their individual life paths. Jo is edgy, energetic, and impulsive, making her way in the world as a prep cook in the kitchen of professional chef Eric Bhaer. She tests the limits of their relationship, while trying to find her original voice as a writer. Meanwhile, people-pleasing Meg independently shoulders familial burdens at homes, wondering if she’s settling for the life she thought she wanted. Meg’s narrative particularly excels in bringing the complex identity and domestic struggles Alcott explored in her original novel to the fore in the modern world, as a young mother trying to retain a sense of herself as she juggles the needs of her children, husband, and aging parents. Meanwhile Jo navigates the messy world of emotions, passion and power dynamics.

The fictional Marches often epitomize a literary domestic ideal. Kantra uses their cultural significance to explore the complexity of modern family constructions. Mr. March’s career as a military chaplain absents him from his family in a re-imagined emotional capacity, which adds new dimensions to the character’s relationships in a way that retains the bonds of familial unity. In the wake of their mother’s sudden illness and a deepening household crisis, Meg and Jo discover the shadow-side of independence, and realize the power of sisterhood, the meanings of family, and unconditional love – with a twist for Jo.

Mr. March is not the only male character transformed by Kantra. She completely revolutionizes conceptions of Bhaer as an unfashionable and moralistic middle-aged professor. Kantra’s Bhaer is a steamy romantic figure, who is, nonetheless, the wise mentor and partner that Jo both needs and desires. Laurie suffers much by comparison. Kantra has renamed the character “Trey.” As Jo’s estranged friend, who remains attached to her and serves as a wealthy patron to the March family, Trey is a minor peripheral character. Perhaps partly because Kantra begins her story in correspondence with the part two of Little Women, Trey is removed from the action of Meg and Jo’s plots, and is, therefore, significantly without character depth or development in this novel. Unfortunately, he comes off as rather cliché and unimportant to the plot, though he seems poised to serve a larger and, hopefully, more equitable role in Beth and Amy.

Kantra’s novel is rich in allusions to Alcott’s oeuvre beyond the Little Women trilogy, and to Alcott’s life.  It is also its own story, a modern testament to sisterhood and the experiences of womanhood.

You can find Meg and Jo: A Contemporary Retelling of Little Women in  your favorite bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

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