I am so pleased to present this extensive review by Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters:
The first thing to remember when you start to read Jeannine Atkins’ marvelous novel, Little Woman Blue (She Writes Press, September 15), is to forget Amy March. Amy, the spoiled youngest of the March family of Little Women, who burned Jo’s books in a fit of childish pique, was at best questionably talented as an artist, and ended up – wouldn’t she just – marrying rich and dashing Laurie and leading a very nice life, thank you, as a Victorian lady who lunched, is nowhere to be seen here. Instead, you’ll meet the real woman behind Amy, Louisa’s sister May.
And what a thoroughly splendid woman May Alcott was. A talented artist and committed free spirit, she both taught and studied art throughout her life; in Concord, she was an early teacher of Daniel Chester French – having for their first meeting in equal measure entranced the teenaged boy and shocked his staid mother by riding her horse clear onto their front lawn – before taking herself off to Europe to study as a painter; in Paris, she was friends with Mary Cassatt and had a still life exhibited at the esteemed Paris Salon of 1877; along the way, she met and married a handsome younger man, and, briefly, led the sort of life many women still only dream of today, emotionally fulfilled and artistically satisfied – and living in the French countryside, to boot – before dying, tragically young at 39, from complications following childbirth.
You’d have thought that this, of all women, would be a woman after Louisa’s own heart – and so she undoubtedly would have been had she not enjoyed the mixed blessing of being Louisa’s younger sister. In Atkins’ wonderfully rich and layered book, she charts the relationship between the two sisters, abundant with affection, with frustration, with rivalry, with miscommunication, with dismissal on the one side and yearning for recognition on the other, and finally, with full and unconditional love as Louisa prepares herself to raise the baby daughter that May had left to her.
In a delicious melding of historical fact and the author’s imagination, May springs to life in the pages of Little Woman Blue as the sort of woman you’d have loved to have as a friend, filled with goodness, with hope, with energy, and with passion for her art; she struggles through New England winters dreaming of Europe and artistic glory; she helps to nurse Louisa when she returns home deathly sick from the Civil War; briefly – and enthusiastically – romances Julian Hawthorne before she realizes that he will never respect a “lady painter”; coolly fights off a case of sexual harassment in an art class; and finally flings herself joyously into the bohemian circles of Paris and London, living her short life to its fullest for every single day that is allotted to her.
And yet, and yet – try as she may, she cannot win respect from her elder sister. There is no question, either in historical record or in Little Woman Blue, but that Louisa and May Alcott loved each other profoundly. Nevertheless, throughout the book, and in a way that will be instantly familiar to every person who has an elder sibling, Louisa dismisses May. She repels her overtures of friendships, telling her, curtly, that “sisters should have some secrets.” She either forgets, or had never troubled herself to find out, that it was May who bore the brunt of nursing her back to health during her illness. For all the intensity of her attention to Lizzie’s needs, she completely fails to see – what the author most delicately and tenderly depicts – how painfully lonely it must have been for May in the family after Lizzie had gone, with the crucial eight-year age gap separating her from Louisa and Anna, and the idealized ghost of the lost sibling reminding her at every turn of her own human imperfections. Worst of all, when she writes Little Women, she writes her youngest sister into it, not as the person she is, but as the character once described in a letter by the real life May as “that horrid stupid Amy.” When the May of this book complains to Louisa about Amy March, saying, “I wanted you to know me,” Louisa replies dismissively, “We’re sisters. Of course I know you.” The point that Atkins is making is that, really, for much of the book, Louisa doesn’t know May at all.
Atkins was a presenter at this past summer’s Conversational Series at Orchard House.
Atkins is a generous writer as well as an observant one, and as the novel progresses, May is allowed to grow in self-confidence and Louisa in recognition of her sister’s qualities, although the suggestion is strong that – as happens all too often – Louisa never fully appreciated May until it was too late.
This is a truly lovely book, a timeless study of two sisters set against the rich and vivid backdrop of nineteenth century New England, London and Paris, and one you will carry in your heart for a very long time after you have finished reading it.
Note: You can order Little Woman in Blue today on Amazon. I. LOVED. this book!
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