Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is one of my truest book loves. This is not a surprise to anyone, if you’ll recall my January post about my visit to Orchard House: “A (Cold, Broke) Boston Girl’s Guide to “Little Women”. Side bar: I’m always happy to discuss Little Women (or any other Alcott works!) just drop a line in the comments or through my contact form!
So of course, I couldn’t resist picking up Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz’s novel Jo & Laurie, published by Penguin Random House and released in early June. I was glad to spend my money on it at Macdonald Book Shop in Estes Park, CO (I’m all about supporting local, independent bookstores).
The first thing I will say about this book is that it is really well designed. The colors chosen for the dust jacket are visually appealing, and the texture of the paper is rougher than is typical of a YA book which gives it a sort of old-fashioned and luxurious appeal. I love that we see Jo holding her book, Little Women, on the cover.
It’s also fun for me at least, that the blue which is the shadow of the title, the color used for Little Women on the book cover within the book cover, and that is also used on the back and spine of the dust jacket, is the same blue that makes up the cover of the book. The cover is a single piece paper binding, and has silver foil on the spine.
Goodreads hates this book (or at least so it appears). Because the initial sorting of reviews on Goodreads is based upon likes (reviews with the most likes appear first), there appear to be an overwhelming amount of negativity towards this book (or people saying, “let’s not rate books poorly before we read them”). But really, a majority of the reviews are three stars and up, with 37% of reviewers granting it four stars.
With that being said, let’s get down to it!
1869, Concord, Massachusetts: After the publication of her first novel, Jo March is shocked to discover her book of scribbles has become a bestseller, and her publisher and fans demand a sequel. While pressured into coming up with a story, she goes to New York with her dear friend Laurie for a week of inspiration—museums, operas, and even a once-in-a-lifetime reading by Charles Dickens himself!
But Laurie has romance on his mind, and despite her growing feelings, Jo’s desire to remain independent leads her to turn down his heartfelt marriage proposal and sends the poor boy off to college heartbroken. When Laurie returns to Concord with a sophisticated new girlfriend, will Jo finally communicate her true heart’s desire or lose the love of her life forever?
The Execution of the Premise
Like onions and ogres, this book has layers.
There’s Real-Jo, the book character who this novel focuses on. And then there’s Book-Jo, who Real-Jo has written about in Little Women and is trying to decide the fate of for the second half of the tale of the March sisters.
For all intents and purposes, Book-Jo is the Jo that we know and love from Louisa May Alcott’s classic. Real-Jo and Book-Jo are similar, but they’re not they same. And that’s where Stohl and de la Cruz step in and take over the story. The exposition in setting up the layers that allow this book to work like it felt a little forced at the beginning of the novel. It was like the authors wanted to make 100% sure that you were clear on what they were doing within their story, but it felt heavy handed to me.
Once the weird layers in this book were established, it felt pretty easy to get into this novel. I read it in one day because I wanted to find out just how Stohl and de la Cruz were going to achieve the promised ending of Jo and Laurie as a couple.
That being said, I don’t think this premise was executed as cleanly as it could have been. Besides getting Jo and Laurie together, I would have liked to see a little more editing of some of the aspects of Little Women that are more complex or troubling or under explored. I would have loved to see a little more about the relationship that exists between the March family and Hannah, their servant. There was one place in the book where Jo was just like “ah yes our faithful servant Hannah” despite the fact that the Marches are impoverished. I also would like to see more about Mr. March, and how he’s portrayed in Little Women vs. in Real-Jo’s life. There was a brief hint of that, but it ended up frustrating me how it was presented.
Does Jo end up with Laurie? Yes, that’s not a spoiler because it’s literally the premise the book is built around. I was satisfied with how it got to the point it did, and I didn’t really feel like Jo’s independence and values were compromised (too much anyways).
My Goodreads rating for this book was three stars, but also take that with a grain of salt because my Goodreads ratings are generally arbitrary.
In the Publisher’s Weekly review of Jo & Laurie, one of their points in relation to this book is “The authors carefully mimic the setting and dialogue style of Alcott’s works, making their care for the characters apparent.”
I didn’t really feel like this did mimic Alcott’s writing style (although they did nail the setting). Perhaps that was because I’ve read Alex & Eliza (Melissa de la Cruz’s fictionalized YA version of the key relationship from Hamilton), and this felt a lot more like that book to me than it actually felt like Little Women.
However, for the most part, I would agree that care was taken with the characters~
Jo was well drawn out and well portrayed. I liked their exploration of her grief and her career and process as writer. While I feel like some of the common Jo catchphrases like “Christopher Columbus!” were a bit overused, the close-third person point of view worked well for me.
Laurie was my favorite character in this book. Hands down. He was charming, witting, and dimensional. Of all the characters in the book, he felt the closest to the way that Alcott writes him. A big plus was that I could easily picture Timothée Chalamet as Laurie while I was reading.
Meg, Amy, and Beth
In my personal opinion, Meg was given too much real estate in this novel and Amy wasn’t given enough and Beth was just plain given the shaft.
While the treatment of Beth’s character provided interesting character development for Jo, it frustrated me greatly. (I won’t say more because I’m trying to avoid spoilers).
My favorite scenes with Meg and Amy were those where they bantered with Jo about what the fates of their characters should be in the second half of Little Women. It was so fun and so sisterly.
While I understand the need to introduce new characters to the story, it felt like a little much at time. Most other characters were fine and I have no major complaints about them. I would have liked more about Mr. March. I also don’t really know why the authors seem to have something against “Marmee” and choose to use “Mama Abba” instead, probably just for the separation between the layers necessary to tell their story.
Some Critical Content
I couldn’t resist sharing some additional reading related to Little Women. Some of it is about Jo and Laurie (not the book, just the relationship), some of it relates to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women (and one on the recent PBS adaptation), and some of it is just about Alcott’s 1868 novel. I tried to pick a mix of scholarly and popular sources (especially since the structures of academia means not everyone can access scholarly articles that are held in larger databases).
Peep those MLA citations
Estes, Angela M. and Kathleen Margaret Lant. “Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.” Children’s Literature, vol. 17, 1989, p. 98-123. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chl.0.0430.
Grady, Constance. “The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic.” Vox. 27 December 2019. https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/27/21037870/little-women-greta-gerwig-ending-jo-laurie-amy-bhaer
Nguyen, Hanh. “‘Little Women’: How PBS’ Adaptation Fixed Jo’s Most Controversial Storyline.” IndieWire. 20 May 2018. https://www.indiewire.com/2018/05/little-women-jo-laurie-bhaer-changes-1201966711/
Nina’s Fairychamber. “Why Jo and Laurie Don’t End Up Together.” Medium. 24, February 2020. https://medium.com/@niinaniskanen/little-women-why-jo-and-laurie-don-t-end-up-together-6c16892ce0d5
Quimby, Karin. “The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 10 no. 1, 2003, p. 1-22. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/49637.
Sands-O’Connor, Karen. “Why Jo Didn’t Marry Laurie: Louisa May Alcott and The Heir of Redclyffe.” ATQ, vol. 15, no. 1, Mar. 2001, p. 23.
Van Tuyl, Jocelyn. ““Somebody Else’s Universe”: Female Künstler Narratives in Alcott’s Little Women and Rowell’s Fangirl.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 41 no. 2, 2016, p. 199-215. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chq.2016.0027.
Wilkins, Trix. “Why did Jo say no?” Much Ado about Little Women. 2017. https://marchandlaurencelittlewomen.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/why-did-jo-say-no/
I’ll admit I didn’t quite know how to MLA cite this one (though I’m sure I could have figured it out), but the Little Women 150 blog (edited by two of my favorite Alcott people, and the beloved professors of the Alcott course I took at K-State) has a blog entry for each chapter of Little Women. It’s an absolute joy to read any (and all!) of these posts. https://lw150.wordpress.com/