The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees (audio)

louisaThis is a fictionalization of one season in the life of Louisa May Alcott, author most famously of Little Women. Louisa and her family are very like her famous fictional creations in many ways. The eldest daughter, Anna, clearly models for Meg of LW; then there’s Louisa/Jo, then Lizzie/Beth, and then Amy/May. Louisa’s mother Abba does go by Marmee, as in the book; the first glaring departure from Alcott’s novel in her real life is that her father, Bronson, is not away at war. Instead, Bronson was a transcendentalist scholar and friend to the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, disinclined to work for a living (being principally opposed, you see); he founded a Utopian commune in which his family lived for a time, and otherwise they scrimped, borrowed, and got by how they could. [I know this is confusing: I am writing a review of a fictional book, about a real-life woman, who wrote a fictional book, about her real-life family. So far, in these bare details I’ve named, I am referring to the real-life Alcotts as well as the Alcotts represented in Kelly O’Connor McNees’ novel.]

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, McNees sets the six Alcotts in Walpole, New Hampshire, living for the summer in a home that belongs to relatives, because they are poor and hungry and have to go where they can. The premise is that Louisa May Alcott – in real-life a confirmed spinster – had a brief love affair that summer that informed the rest of her life. History yields no indication that such an affair took place, so this is where the fiction begins.

The plot is simple and uninteresting, certainly not the strength of this book. The family is new to Walpole; Anna has recently decided that she is interested in getting married (as any good girl of her era would be) and works to make herself presentable to the town’s young men. Louisa is, as ever, hot-headed, passionate, interested mostly in her writing, and does not intend to marry because it would disrupt her freedom (to write, and otherwise). She is firmly a feminist, and deeply interested in her father’s friends Emerson and Thoreau, and in a new book of poetry called Leaves of Grass by somebody named Walt Whitman. Lizzie is sickly and fussed over. May is obnoxiously free from the privation that the rest of the family feels; Marmee is rather frustrated with her lot in life; and Bronson is thoroughly exasperating in his refusal to get realistic and provide for his family. Anna meets a boy. And Louisa meets a boy, and in stock romance-novel style, finds him unbearable right up until she falls in love with him. They are thwarted.

The strengths of The Lost Summer are in its subjects: lovers of Little Women will be charmed by the fictional-real-life models for Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The setting is rather charming, as well, and Joseph Singer (Louisa’s love interest) is likeable. But unlike the characters in Little Women, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May are underdeveloped. To be fair, it is a shorter book, and spans a much briefer time than its more famous model, so perhaps this should be excused. But I’m not really that forgiving, as I’ve seen masterful character development in mere pages (see: short story masters like Hemingway and de Maupassant). To be further fair, I’m not a fan of romance novels. (Maybe I should never have picked this book up?) That said, I was impatient with the plot line that had Louisa grumpy toward this man she simultaneously felt pulled towards – she went weak in the knees, etc., etc. – and then suddenly sick with love. It’s just too familiar, ho hum. And finally, too many of these characters were unlikeable (May, Bronson, even Marmee; Louisa for her bullheadedness; minor characters Margaret and Catherine, ugh!) for my tastes. I sort of felt that this story had misplaced its heroine.

Of some interest was the opportunity that McNees took to outline Louisa’s feminism and her limited options. I confess I did buy into the romance enough to wish that Joseph and Louisa could be together – could marry, or simply cohabitat – which latter option I realize is my modern-woman’s solution, and wasn’t really available to Louisa at all. Louisa talks and thinks through their options and what they would mean to her: how, for example, marriage would mean endless drudgery and housework for her, and the loss of her ability to write. This is a message that needed communicating, and I found it interesting and instructive to consider the limited options of a woman of this era. So a few points were regained here. However, these musings were only thinly veiled as dialogue or internal thoughts of the characters; I felt I could see McNees holding the strings.

For a quick, superficial, comfortable visit with the beloved Alcotts, come on in to Lost Summer; but if you’re looking for more, look elsewhere.

Audio edition was fine but unremarkable.

Rating: 4 oh-so-important ribbons.

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