Louisa May Alcott wrote many books, from her "blood and thunder" tales to heartwarming novels about teens growing up.
But there's something special about "Little Women," a fictionalized account of her own family's growing pins. Thewarmly realistic stories, sense of comedy and tragedy, and insights into human nature make the romance, humor and fun little anecdotes of "Little Women" come alive.
The four March girls -- practical Meg, rambunctious Jo, sweet Beth and childish artist Amy -- live in genteel New England poverty with their Marmee, while their father is away in the Civil War. The girls don't let lack of money hamper their fun and happiness. But their world starts to expand when Jo befriends "poor little rich boy" Laurie, and soon he and his tutor are almost a part of their family.
Along with him, the girls encounter many of the bumps of growing up -- the destruction of Jo's treasured writing, romps with wealthier pals, Amy's expulsion from school, and Meg's reluctant first romance. But their lives are turned upside-down when Beth contracts scarlet fever, and they receive news that their father has been seriously injured -- and these crises threaten to destroy the heart of their family.
The second half of the book opens with Meg's wedding -- if not to her dream guy, then to her love. But while time has mellowed and matured the Little Women, it hasn't lessened the capacity for conflict and unintentional comedy -- particularly with the now-attractive Amy, whose attempts to pursue art, culture and the appearance of wealthy sophistication usually go horribly wrong.
But the platonic friendship between Laurie and Jo is shattered when he admits his true feelings to her... and gets rejected. Distraught, he goes to Europe, as does Amy with crusty old Aunt March. And left in New England, Jo is faced with the question of what her life has in store, despite Beth's picturesquely poor health. Her new job as a governess leads her to put her treasured stories into print... leading her to love and her future.
There's a clearly autobiographical tone to "Little Women" -- and since the March girls really are like the girls next door, this doesn't exactly come as a shock. How much of it is real? A passage late in the book portrays a post-"blood and thunder" Alcott -- in the form of Jo -- "scribbling" down the book itself, and getting it published because it feels so real and true.
And it does. Alcott's writing is a warm, smooth string of interconnected stories, some of them quiet and some peppered with silly jokes, moments of tragedy, poetry, and unintentional humiliation ("Salt instead of sugar. And the cream is sour"). Sometimes, especially in the beginning, Alcott is a bit too preachy and hamhanded. But her touch becomes defter as she writes on.
The best part of this book is the March girls themselves -- they have flaws and strengths, ambitions and dreams that never quite turn out as they expect. And their misadventures -- like Amy's embarrassing problem with her huge lobster, or Meg's makeover at a rich friend's house -- have the feeling of authenticity.
Lovable Jo is the quintessential tomboy -- rough, gawky, fun-loving, impulsive, with a love of literature and a mouth that is slightly too big. Meg's love of luxury adds a flaw to the "perfect little homemaker" image, and while Amy is an annoying little brat throughout much of the first half of the book, by her teens she's almost as likable as Jo.
It must be admitted that Beth is not quite as endearing -- she's canonized with the 19th-century approach to the deceased, and so is continuously sweet, loving and understanding. But Laurie makes up for this: a wealthy, artistic, passionate young man who goes through all the growing pains, as he tries to be worthy of the girl he adores. Don't worry, things turn out all right for him.
"Little Women" is one of those rare classic novels that is still relevant, funny, fresh and heartbreaking today. The March family will come alive, and never quite leave.