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The Little Women Letters
on 9 April 2016
Written by Gabrielle Donnelly and published in 2011 by Penguin Books, The Little Women Letters “explores the imagined lives of Jo March’s descendants–three sisters who are both thoroughly modern and thoroughly March.” It parallels the lives and characters of the three March sisters — Meg, Jo, and Amy — with Jo’s great, great granddaughters — Emma, Lulu, and Sophie. The reader gets little glimpses of the March family’s life after Little Women ended and before Little Men began, as one of the modern girls get to know their ancestor through her great, great grandmother Jo’s letters.
From the little I remember of when I read Little Women, it was like having a favourite reading chair next to a sunny window or a fireplace, happily and comfortably witnessing the lives of sisters as they grow up, find love, and yet still have each other to come back to when life throws them a curveball. You smile in different ways — wry amusement, contentment, or just plain happiness at their fortunes. The Little Women Letters is similar, in the sense that it is a story about a family with three sisters having different personalities, and how they navigate the challenges of life.
However, this book started me off with none of these warm, fuzzy feelings. It was actually more of a confused frown, before completely degrading to what-the-fuck. Like a couch that looks absolutely comfortable until you plop on it and find out that it badly needs re-upholstering.
The modern March sisters, called Atwaters, are all in their twenties, and yet they bicker like tweens. I had to pause to think whether my younger sister and I would be communicating as such if we did not live in different continents, but despite us having different personalities, we never talked to each other like that, even before I migrated nor doing my visits. Their conversations felt forced and contrived, like a salesperson doing a hard sell but just completely missing the mark. I do not know whether it was all meant to be endearing and to show sisterly love, but even Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in their pre-teens had wittier banter.
The Jo character, Lulu, is described all over the book as the “odd one out”. Plain-looking but smart, and odd (the reader musn’t forget). I wish I counted how many times that word ‘odd’ was used because it was employed so often that it was grating. Despite being smart, she did not know what she wanted to do in life. She hovers between one job to the next, but she is always, always happy to cook for others, and she is very, very good at it. So tell me — why and how a supposed extremely smart woman never ever thought that, oh, how about the culinary arts, eh?
There are other things, which I would like to mention but I feel is just nitpicking and rubbing salt to the wound. I will mention one and no more — one of the Atwater girls have a near death experience from anaphylaxis. And while anaphylaxis is a serious life-threatening condition, the treatment for it did not warrant the dramatic length of waiting time described in the novel. If it was, the girl would have been on a ventilator for breathing support, with either a tube or a hole in her neck for breathing access.
Towards the end of the novel, Lulu finds a match, a soulmate of sorts, and there are the beginnings of a relationship at the last twenty or so pages of the novel. That gives you the idea how incredibly quick this developed; it was like, SNAP! there goes a love life for Lulu. Again, my face took on the confused frown, and again went, “whaaaaaaaaat?”
From the author’s website, I learned that the idea for this novel came from an editor and they had different writers pitch a sample first chapter, and then choose which writer to further develop the story. It was a good idea, but I personally do not think it was executed well. The charm I associated with Louisa May Alcott’s book was to be found in very few parts, and even then it could not exude it enough to make the book recommendable. I nearly gave up on this actually, and considered not finishing it, but I always feel I have to push through just to see if it turns to be a gem. The general consensus on Goodreads seems to be positive, so I do not know whether it is a matter of taste or you need to be smoking something special to get it.