Little (Meta) Women: yet another Little Women retelling

In my quest to read just about every Little Women adaptation/retelling I can get my hands on, I couldn’t resist requesting an advanced copy of Belittled Women, a meta Little Women retelling by Amanda Sellet that comes out this November. I received an eARC from Netgalley and quickly got to reading. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver like I had hoped. That’s really unfortunate considering that between the Little Womenness of it all and the fact that this book is set in Kansas (the fictional town of Concord, KS), I should have been the ideal reader for this book. Belittled Women is out on November 29 from Clarion Book

The Premise

Lit’s about to hit the fan. Jo Porter has had enough Little Women to last a lifetime. As if being named after the sappiest family in literature wasn’t sufficiently humiliating, Jo’s mom, ahem Marmee, leveled up her Alcott obsession by turning their rambling old house into a sad-sack tourist attraction. Now Jo, along with her siblings, Meg and Bethamy (yes, that’s two March sisters in one), spends all summer acting out sentimental moments at Little Women Live!, where she can feel her soul slowly dying. So when a famed photojournalist arrives to document the show, Jo seizes on the glimpse of another life: artsy, worldly, and fast-paced. It doesn’t hurt that the reporter’s teenage son is also eager to get up close and personal with Jo—to the annoyance of her best friend, aka the boy next door (who is definitely not called Laurie). All Jo wants is for someone to see the person behind the prickliness and pinafores. But when she gets a little too real about her frustration with the family biz, Jo will have to make peace with kitsch and kin before their livelihood suffers a fate worse than Beth.

The Execution

The premise certainly indicates that there will be lots of layers (like ogres and onions) give the intermingling of Little Women the book, Little Women Live! (the attraction at the center of the book), and the characters named after the characters who they’re performing. Unfortunately, all of these layers made for a messy and at times confusing story. Even a humorous attempt to try and address this complexity of the characters referring to themselves and the characters that Alcott created just made me groan especially given the humor that was employed in this attempt (the joke of referring to Book Jo as BJ particularly did me in). I feel like some of this confusion and chaos could have been cleaned up with a stronger editorial hand, and it always frustrates me when it feels a book didn’t get the editing that could have made it shine.

While this book is told from Jo’s first person perspective with accounts for a certain bit of bias, I found it unfortunate that Jo was the only full fleshed out character in the book (and maybe her friend/love interest/Meg’s ex David). Meg and Amy felt like caricatures and Meg’s portrayal at times felt really harsh. Even when Jo comes to understand her sisters and her mother better, they still don’t feel anything other than two-dimensional.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy anything about this book at all. There’s a scene where Sellet is talking about Jo and David’s friendship (before Jo truly recognizes her feelings for him) and describes their physical closeness in a way that really reminded me of some of my own friendships in high school.

My Pet Peeve

I think my biggest pet peeve with this book is that it was set in Kansas. I got my hopes up (audibly gasping in fact) when I saw that, and then was disappointed. Concord, KS could have been any generic small town in any part of the United States. There was exactly nothing that made it feel like Kansas or the Midwest (okay there was a Dairy Queen, but that’s it).

When I read a book that is set in Kansas, I want it to feel like Kansas. Stories that are set in small towns and rural areas are, to me, even better when they feel geographically specific. Place representation in children’s and young adult literature is something I think is overlooked and it’s something I feel strongly about.

General Thoughts about Little Women Retellings

I feel like there have been a lot of Little Women retellings both for adult readers and young readers alike in the last few years. See all of my Little Women blog posts for examples. In fact this and Sarah Miller’s Marmee (blog post to come) both come out within a month of each other. Some of these I’ve really loved like Great or Nothing and So Many Beginnings but others have just really missed the mark.

I understand why people rewrite Little Women: the tale of sisterhood feels timeless, Jo and Laurie’s friendship is dynamic, writers really connect with Jo, and it’s a formative text for a lot of people. However, the market also feels really oversaturated for Little Women retellings. I would love to see other Alcott texts get their modernization rather than constant rewritings of Little Women. Give me Little Men for the modern age or An Old Fashioned Girl. Give me Eight Cousins (but we can skip Rose in Bloom). If I had to guess some of the Little Women-boom came as a result of Greta Gerwig’s excellent 2019 movie adaptation as well. I’m hoping that the Little Women retellings will cool in the next few years, so that the next time there’s a rush of Little Women retellings they feel nuanced and new rather than chaotic and unnecessary like I found Belittled Women.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading Little Women retellings and reporting my thoughts on them. If there’s a retelling you think I should read, let me know in the comments!

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