McNees, Kelly O’Connor. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. Penguin, 2010. ISBN 978-0399156526352 pp. $
I recently added free editions of Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys to my Kindle, and was delighted to receive a review copy of this title in the mail. I feel like I got a lot more out of it, with the story of Little Women fresh in my mind, than I would have if I’d not read it for years.
The acclaimed author of Little Women was a notable letter writer and diarist throughout her whole life–and was infamous for burning her writing and correspondence as she carefully cultivated the persona that she wished her adoring public to know. The summer of 1855 is a gap in the life of Miss Louisa May Alcott, and McNees’s inventive novel combines biographical facts with speculation about the missing time, filling in the blanks with characters both drawn from history books and sprung from McNees’s imagination. Many fans have wondered throughout the years who the “real-life Laurie” was; The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott seeks to lay that question to rest through fiction.
The scene: the Alcott family has just relocated to Walpole, NH to stay in a relative’s home for the summer. At 22, McNees’s Louisa is singularly focused on her career and saving up to move to Boston to find paid work as a writer, and has no room for romance in a life that is filled with charity, duty and poverty. When she unexpectedly finds a kindred spirit in the local dry goods merchant’s son Joseph, she is in denial even as she falls for him. Stubborn Louisa won’t be dissuaded from her dreams, not even for love. Or will she?
An author’s note states the McNees constantly read Louisa’s works to keep her voice at the forefront of the story, but this might have been better accomplished by a first person, rather than third person point of view which slips frequently into omniscience. I felt very removed from the tale, especially in scenes where the character of Louisa recalls events from her childhood that reveal the nature of her father Bronson.
Careless editing results in the repeat of phrases that the author is taken with, such as “a girl of twelve might [insert action or behavior:], but a woman of twenty-two could never [insert action:].” The romance of the story is muddied a bit with the family’s history and the repetitive women’s rights issues that are a refrain throughout. The details of domestic life in the 1850s (candlemaking, fear of scarlet fever, the arduous task of stain removal via a brush) do impart a realistic view of what life was life back then, but the scenes don’t seem to have a lot of momentum – perhaps it’s because we readers know that Louisa remained a spinster, so there is no uncertainty of the outcome to add drama and propel the story.
Louisa is a young 22, with streaks of adolescent rebelliousness that come in the form of sneaking forbidden books, remaining unchaperoned with a male peer, and challenging the philosophies of her father that leave the family impoverished and always scrounging for their daily bread. The slow pace and simple straightforward writing were cited in a Publisher’s Weekly Review as being very YA novel like, but I don’t see teens snapping this up, and take some offense at the idea of less complex literature as “for teens.”