Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

Like many young girls, I was given a copy of Little Women as a gift.  Lousia May Alcott's perfect roman a clef about growing up in genteel poverty during the Civil War has been universally adored by generations of young readers, and despite the drastic social changes that have taken place in the intervening years, Jo March's struggle for independence and freedom from the conventions of society still resonates with many young women struggling to find their way in a complex and often confusing world.

So it was with great excitement that I picked up a copy of The Lost Summer of Lousia May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees at a local discount store.  I had read glowing reviews of the book on many of the blogs that I follow, and I anticipated feeling just as taken with the fictionalized account of one youthful summer as all of those bloggers had been. While many authors over the years have used primary historical documents to write fictionalized accounts of the lives of real people, this book seemed to promise some kind of new insight into a hidden chapter of Miss Alcott's life.

The Lost Summer recounts the events of one summer when Louisa was 20.  She and her family go to stay in the house of a friend of their father's in Walpole, Massachusetts.  Her father Bronson Alcott, was a philosopher who was friends with many of the important intellectuals of the mid 1800s-Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, and others.  Unfortunately for his family, he believed that working for money would sully his mind, and as a result the Alcott family lived off of the generosity of their friends and family, as well as whatever money the girls could bring in doing piecework or working as tutors and companions.  Louisa meets Joseph Singer, a young man trying to manage his father's shop during the older man's long illness.  There is an instant attraction between Joseph and Louisa, but he is already pledged to another girl, and she longs for the independence to write.  Despite never wanting to marry, Louisa feels herself falling in love with Singer, bonding as they do over Walt Whitman's recently released Leaves of Grass.

Reading the author's note, it becomes obvious that there is actually no historical evidence that Louisa had a love affair as a young girl the year her family lived in Walpole.  The entire affair is completely from the imagination of  McNees.  Which would have been fine, if the story of their love had been as gripping and tragic as some of those rhapsodizing bloggers seemed to find it.  My problem with it was that it didn't seem realistic at all.  They meet, make eyes at each other, read a few poems, and are suddenly consumed with an unquenchable love for each other.  Maybe it's a function of my age, but I just didn't buy the "love at first sight" thing.  Infatuation, yes.  Physical desire, sure.  But full-on, can't-live-without-you love?  Sorry, I just didn't get it.  As a result, while the book is very well written and I enjoyed McNees' descriptions of New England life in the 1850s, I can only say, "meh".

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