Hardcover, 343 pages
Published: April 1, 2010 by Putnam Adult
Literary Awards: Goodreads Choice Nominee for Historical Fiction (2010)
When I was a girl, I was madly in love with Louisa May Alcott’s novels, a passion I inherited from my mother. In high school, I learned a bit about American Transcendentalism and Bronson Alcott’s eccentric Utopian vision, which played out at Fruitlands. I wondered what life was like for young Louisa May Alcott, living with her father’s fascinating but impractical ideals and how Bronson Alcott meshed with the wise, loving father on the fringes of Little Women.
Kelly O’Connor McNees’s thoroughly researched, gorgeously crafted novel draws them both together, vividly sketching what life in the Alcott family may have been like. She also imagines a part of Louisa’s life, when she was on the cusp of becoming a committed spinster, when she she fell in love and dreamed about marriage.
In the summer of 1855, Louisa is 22 and living in Walpole, Massachusetts with her family. She longs for freedom and independence and is eager to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But she and her beloved older sister Anna are tethered to their need to help care for their family.
Anna longs for love and marriage, but Louisa is determined to remain single. Living in a time when a married woman is unlikely to keep her own interests and dreams alive, she is unwilling to forfeit the opportunity to become an author. Furthermore her father fancies himself a writer and philosopher and feels it violates his principles to work for income. Watching the drudgery and poverty of her mother’s life intensifies Louisa’s determination not to marry.
That summer Louisa meets Joseph, a young man who shares her passion for words and ideas, and they delve into the newly published, controversial poems of Walt Whitman. Joseph’s fate is tied to responsibility to his family and rectifying the mistakes of his improvident father. As the love between him and Louisa deepens, they must both make heart-wrenching choices.
This is such a lovely book. In a dreamlike way, it sucked me into its world as a wonderful novel should, recreating the language and sensibilities of the time in a way that seemed to ring true. It brought together the March family and the Alcotts in a believable way. It was rich with vivid details about quotidian life in a mid-nineteenth century household, and it touched on some of the important ideas and events of the day, including the controversy over slavery and the transcendental movement. It was illuminated by the presence of some of the great writers and thinkers of the time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It also explored interesting themes, including the struggle between personal desires and duty and the conflict between love and personal fulfillment in a time when narrow roles were proscribed for women.
However, I wish the relationship between Louisa and her suitor had been developed in more depth. I felt the connection, a meeting of minds and stirring of desire — I definitely felt the sense of longing. But I expected it to go deeper. I didn’t quite feel a depth of love and commitment that would keep this couple connected, on some level, for the rest of their lives.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I highly recommend it to historical fiction aficionados, particularly those who loved Alcott’s novels.