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Louisa May Alcott in Fiction and Biography April 9, 2010

Posted by lycan librarian in book reviews, Books and reading.
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     The Lycan Librarian had waited months for THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Kelly O’Connor McNees to come out and has finally read it. Unfortunately, she was disappointed. Bear in mind, I have been reading about and studying Alcott for the past year, and my opinion of this book has definitely been molded around my impressions of what I have learned about Louisa May. McNees has a more romantic picture of Alcott than I do. I think it inaccurate of the author to list bonnets and slippers higher than new books and fine pens on Louisa May’s wish list. This happened early in the book, so, sadly, my judgement was swayed from the start.  I did try to shake it off and proceed with my reading,but found that the author relates events as if we are watching Alcott.  As novels are fiction, their authors have the advantage of being permitted to create scenarios and dialogue. Such scenes, when well-crafted, enable the reader to inhale the character into their bodies and know what it is like to be them, but we never crawl into Louisa May’s skin and see the world through her eyes in this book. We are told when she is uncomfortable, but we don’t feel the heat that colors her cheeks or the temper boiling in her chest. Frankly, the very story, itself, simply is not compelling; as a matter of fact, there is not much story there. It is a love for Alcott, not the plot, which will drive readers to turn the pages.
     I do admit, I have been spoiled of late. I have been devouring John Matteson’s EDEN’S OUTCASTS, the fascinating biography about Louisa May and Bronson Alcott. In it, Matteson brings this historical father and daughter so vividly to life that the reader feels as if they know them and now stands as an expert witness of their lives. It is no wonder the author won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for this book.
     Wonderfully unexpected, but quite welcome, isn’t it, that a biography can be called a quicker, wittier and more interesting and amusing read than a novel? I think, perhaps, the fact that Matteson explored all sides of Alcott, and McNees is concentrating on placing her in a LITTLE WOMAN type summer love story is what makes the novel fail in my perspective.  (I am far from sentimental, believe me, but I do have the ability to appreciate a well written tender book.) But a far bigger issue is that Matteson was able to fully transport the reader to Bronson and Louisa May’s time and environment, and McNees simply does not accomplish that task.

     I think many people think that LITTLE WOMEN is representative of Louisa May Alcott’s personality, so view her as a kindly and wistful romantic. HA! She wanted to write Gothic mysteries, dark stories and tales about the lurid side of life. But she was also a very smart woman, so wrote what paid the best.  I can’t help but feel that this realistic writer is the woman Matteson presented, and a sighing dreamer is the one who McNees was trying to sculpt.

         Yes, yes, shame on me for comparing those proverbial apples and oranges, but both books sit before me on my footstool, and both are lodged in my head. I have finished reading them, but it is Matteson’s masterpiece that I keep picking up to reread phrases and scenes that he has so proficiently presented. After all, in the end, the affect that a work has on its readers is the truest measure of a book.

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