Little Women (150th Anniversary Edition) – by Louisa May Alcott – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

This review is of a new, special anniversary release of the ORIGINAL edition of the American classic, LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), which was first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869 (150 years ago!). As many people already know, the novel follows the story of the four teenage March sisters during the time of the Civil War in what can only be described as beautifully written prose. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.

What I found VERY interesting in this edition is the detailed introduction about Alcott’s life and the historical context about the lives of women and girls at this time in American history. (Remember this book takes place 50+ years before the women’s suffrage movement.) The information helped me understand more about this era’s restrictions on women.

This edition also includes the same 200 illustrations by artist Frank T. Merrill that appeared in the original version. Unfortunately my “arc” did not include these illustrations so I cannot speak to what they add to this edition. Also included is GOOD WIVES, Alcott’s sequel following the four sisters and their friend Laurie into adulthood.

Although I never read LITTLE WOMEN as a child (a missed opportunity), I did read it as an adult some years ago. I think if I had read the book at a younger age, I would have had a less critical eye and more appreciation for the classic nature of this story. Because it’s definitely a period piece.

Unfortunately, despite Alcott’s skillful writing, I did not find the story itself held up all that well. Rather it seemed to be a mix of profundity, excessive sentimentality, and sexism. So overall, I think I’d rate it more than three stars, but less than four.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

As an adult reader:

  • I found Louisa May Alcott inconsistent with “voice”. At times she is deep in the story with her characters, then suddenly steps out and speaks directly to the reader. I found this awkward.
  • Parts of the novel – particularly early on – felt slow and tedious as the four sisters contend with the deprivations of the Civil War, mundane domestic responsibilities, petty sibling rivalry, and their saint-like mother.
  • But what was most difficult to get past was the pervasive sexism, which seriously dates this novel. Lots of lessons about women prioritizing the needs of “their men” and ultimately learning to find life satisfaction only after they commit to roles as wives, mothers, and uneducated second class citizens.

On the plus side, the chapter dealing with Beth’s last illness is so beautifully written that I sobbed. And the remaining 20% of the book is completely captivating! The slow evolution of Amy’s relationship with Laurie, Jo recognizing the feelings she has developed for the professor, and the tying up of all story lines in the last chapter were mostly compelling, though occasionally overly sentimental.

I’m glad I read LITTLE WOMEN. I wish I had done it earlier in life. I understand why it’s a classic representative of 19th century America. But overall, I think the ideal target audience would be young women and girls. Because this novel could spark a very interesting conversation about how the lives of women in America have changed in 150 years.

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