Review of 'The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott,' by Kelly O'Connor McNees

By Carrie Brown
Wednesday, April 28, 2010


By Kelly O'Connor McNees

Amy Einhorn/Putnam.

342 pp. $24.95

Such is the iconic power of Louisa May Alcott's beloved "Little Women" that it takes hardly any effort to evoke its opening scene. The four March sisters, you'll remember, gather around the hearth on a winter evening, waiting for their mother to arrive home "while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within." For many readers, this scene and others that follow are so familiar that they have the vivid force of something remembered from one's own life.

In her first novel, "The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott," Kelly O'Connor McNees has responded to her affection for "Little Women" -- and her admiration for its author -- with an imagined story of Alcott's life. McNees invents a youthful (and doomed) love affair for the writer, who never married, and explores the tension Alcott felt between her public ambition and personal life.

Of course, other contemporary novelists have been charmed into the world of "Little Women." Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize with her novel "March," inspired by the absent father in "Little Women" and by Louisa May's real father, Bronson Alcott, a fascinating figure Brooks called the "most transcendent transcendentalist of them all."

McNees's novel begins during the imagined summer of Louisa May's 22nd year. The impoverished family has moved to Walpole, Mass., to take up residence in a house offered by a relative. (Bronson Alcott's philosophical preoccupations make him rich in spirit only.) The four Alcott sisters begin life in this new town, meeting other young people their age, including Joseph Singer, the son of the owner of Walpole's dry goods store. Joseph and Louisa are both clever and fond of books. The literary landscape is abuzz with talk of "Leaves of Grass," the revolutionary poetry of Walt Whitman, and Joseph and Louisa are enthralled.

McNees gets the period details just right: the crinolines and carriages; the spare, aesthetic plainness of 19th-century New England. And although the love affair with Joseph is invented, she remains faithful to the broad outlines of Alcott's biography. In fact, "The Lost Summer" is the kind of romantic tale to which Alcott herself was partial, one in which love is important but not a solution to life's difficulties. Devotees of "Little Women" will flock to this story with pleasure.

Brown's most recent novel is "The Rope Walk."

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