Louisa May Alcott is best known for her classic coming-of-age novel "Little Women." But she tackles an entirely different part of growing up in "An Old Fashioned Girl," the story of a country mouse living with a wealthy urban family in late 19th-century America. It gets rather prissy and moralistic in places, but has a measure of earnest charm.
Teenage Polly Milton is arriving in the city (New York?) for the first time, to stay with her uncle and aunt. She immediately sticks out because of her prosaic clothing and lack of chic. Her cousin Fan Shaw (also about fourteen) is already dressed like a young woman, and hangs out with a gang of shallow, trendy girls. On the other hand, Polly befriends old ladies, sings Scottish airs, and reads books on history. Can she fit in? What's more... does she really want to?
Fast forward about five or six years: The Shaw family learns that Polly is returning to the city, intending to give music lessons to help support her brother. Time hasn't really changed Polly -- she's still sweet-natured, morally upright and kind to everyone. But the Shaw family is in serious financial trouble -- and Polly will help out the only way she knows how.
Like "Little Women," this book was written in two halves, which might explain why the second half is so much better than the first. The first isn't bad, but it suffers from too much prissiness. Virtually every story centres on Polly's moral struggles, in a very preachy manner. Her story is far more engaging when she learns confidence and strength, not when she's wavering about peer pressure.
Despite the preachy edge, Alcott's writing withstands the test of time -- strong, descriptive and pleasant. She also writes a good understated love story, in Polly's gradual interest in her cousin Tom. You'll know that these two really need to get together, but it's going to take them awhile to mutually realize it. So sit back and enjoy the ride.
Polly initially seems like a disastrous character, given her goody-two-shoes attitude, but she proves to be far better over the course of the book. Her spoiled, grumpy or flaky cousins are far more engaging, since they have immediate flaws. And they do progress as people over the course of the story, whether it's becoming more down to earth, or falling in love.
A real story is wrapped around this lesson on peer pressure, although occasionally Alcott goes a bit over the top. Charming, sweet and sometimes very funny.