Dec 18, 2009

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Yes, I’ve finally read it! And I’m glad I picked this time of year to do it, because this is such a cosy, homelike, Winter-y book. And I’m not just saying this because it begins with a Christmas scene. Should I attempt a plot summary? Little Women is what I suppose is usually called a coming-of-age story. It opens when the March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – are children and young teenagers who anxiously await, along with Mrs March, their father’s return from the American Civil War. And it closes about a decade later, when they’re all no longer little women, but adults who have chosen their paths in life. The nature of the book is almost episodic, with each chapter dealing with a specific event. But there’s certainly continuity as well.

Even though I’m usually a fan of nineteenth-century literature, most of what I’ve read is European; I still have a lot of reading to do when it comes to what was going on in America at the time. So one thing that surprised me about Little Women was how much looser and freer the lives of the March girls were when compared to what I think of when I hear the words “Victorian Girls”. I was particularly interested in how this book would deal with gender because I know it’s often referred to as a proto-feminist classic. As is usually the case, I found that there were several angles to the matter.

On the one hand, Little Women is still very much all about the separate spheres. We are fully immersed in the world of the March girls, and it feels like a complete world in itself; one where they’re allowed to be real people. But this is very much an insulated, domestic world. It’s not the same world Laurie inhabits; the world where he, say, goes off to college. And every now and then we have passages such as,
…learning, as Meg learned, that a woman's happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.
My dear nineteenth century: as much as I love you, and as aware as I am that my own time is still full of people who think like this, I'm so glad I don't live in you. But on the other hand, Louisa May Alcott clearly rejects some of the common notion of her time regarding women, namely the idea of marriage as a career. And the girls are clearly spirited and independent, earning their own keep from a young age (from necessity, granted, but this is not presented as demeaning) and going off to places like Europe or New York.

I have to say that I enjoyed part I, Little Women, quite a bit more than part II, Good Wives. I felt that Good Wives was more traditional, less subtly subversive, and that at times Alcott just barely managed to avoid becoming preachy. The reason why she does avoid it is because the story is too alive to crumble under the weight of its morality; the characters feel too real to ever become mere actors in an allegory. And that’s no small feat. Plus the narrator knows where to add little touches of humour, which help keep the tone from becoming too didactic. For example: Jo must have fallen asleep (as I dare say my reader has during this little homily).

But one example of what I meant earlier, though, is the whole episode regarding Jo, sensation stories, and “moral corruption”. I wasn’t surprised to learn, after I finished the book, that Louisa May Alcott herself had written sensation fiction in her youth. Take this passage:
Jo soon found that her innocent experience had given her but few glimpses of the tragic world which underlies society, so regarding it in a business light, she set about supplying her deficiencies with characteristic energy. Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons. She studied faces in the street, and characters, good, bad, and indifferent, all about her. She delved in the dust of ancient times for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed. She thought she was prospering finely, but unconsciously she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us.
Sigh. This made me sad, and also quire curious to read a biography of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the unrepentant author of Lady Audley’s Secret and other sensation novels. I can only imagine what she had to go through.

When I mentioned that I was reading Little Women for the first time, Kailana from The Written World decided to read it along with me, since the last time she’d read it had been when she was a child. Meanwhile, life got in the way, and we didn’t manage to keep the same reading pace. But because Kelly has read it before, she still was still able to ask me a few questions (I’ll ask her some as well once she finishes):

What did you think about the book overall?
As you’ve all probably realized by now, I enjoyed it a lot. Even though I complained a little about part II, I read everything eagerly and I never lost interest. I had a great time with it, and I grew to be quite attached to all the characters. I cared what happened to them; I laughed, cried or was angry along with them or on their behalf—what else could I ask for?

Which of the sisters was your favourite?
Jo! And not only because she was a bookworm, though that did immediately endear her to me. She just feels more…alive than the others, somehow. I had the distinct impression that she was Louisa May Alcott’s favourite too; that she put a little more into Jo than into the other characters (this despite the fact that her characterization in general is very good, and that all the characters did feel real).

Have you watched any of the movies based on the novel, or was this your first experience with the story entirely?
I have – the early 90’s version starring Winona Ryder and Kristen Dunst – but it was so long ago that I didn’t remember much at all. I did remember a few specific scenes, like when Jo gets home and removes her hat and everyone sees – I don’t think this is much of a spoiler – her short hair, or – this is a spoiler – what happens to Beth (though I was convinced it would happen in part one, not part two).

What was your favourite scene?
I don’t care how much of a cliché this is: the Christmas surprise just at the end of part one. It’s a wonderful, heart-warming, wonderfully written scene. The tone is just right: yes, it’s a bit sentimental and all, but it never really becomes sappy. It both moved me and made me very happy.

Do you think it deserves its distinction as a classic? Why or why not?
This is always such a difficult question! But you know, my default answer is always yes. I think that sometimes brilliant books are unfairly neglected and forgotten, but I don’t think the opposite happens .I don’t think books that don’t speak to people endure the test of time. Little Women clearly does still speak to people, and if that doesn’t make of worthy of its status, what would?

Has anyone read Little Men and Jo's Boys? Are they good?

Other Opinions:
The Literary Stew
Book Psmith
DogEar Diary

A Work in Progress
Books.Lists.Life
Shona's Bookshelves
The Zen Leaf
somewhere i have never travelled

(Did I miss yours?)

43 comments:

  1. I was actually not very impressed by this book. I wanted to be, and I wanted to think of it as pro-women's rights and all, but the way she ended it really bothers me. It was like in the end, all the women just gave up and did what they were supposed to do. That's what it felt like to me. Plus, there was a bit too much heavy-handed moralizing and too much sugar for me in it. It came off very bland.

    I do like the movie (the one with Winona Ryder) very much. I still don't like the way it ends - Jo's fate in particular breaks my heart - but I like it better than the book.

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  2. I see what you mean about where they ended up - it especially bothered me about Meg. I didn't much like the parts about her domestic life :\ But with Jo, at least I got the feeling that the school was truly what she wanted to do. It's always the same with books from this period, and, paradoxically, it's one of the reasons why they interest me - they can only take their protest so far.

    PS: Did you review it or was it pre-blogging?

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  3. I've loved this book since the first time I read it as a kid, enough to try Little Men and Jo's Boys, which I didn't like nearly as much.

    I've blogged before about how one of my literary wishes is to manipulate the ending so Jo ends up with Laurie. Yes, I understand why she ends up with the Baer. But I don't like it!

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  4. I love this book so much! Little Men and Jo's Boys aren't as good as Little Women, in my opinion.

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  5. It's interesting your comparison between the girls in Little Women and the women portrayed in other Victorian literature, namely because this book was frequently challenged due to its feminist undertones! I don't really recall picking up on them, but then again, I did read this book when I was a young girl myself, so I probably wasn't going to pick up on any women's lib type issues.

    This is one of those classics I would like to re-read one of these days... it's just so hard to make time for re-reads when there are so many undiscovered books out there!

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  6. This was probably my favourite book while growing up (together with An Old-Fashioned Girl, also by Alcott. I had a huge crush on Tom Shaw, of course). I used to re-read it once a year - I can't remember when I stopped. Probably when I started re-reading Pride and Prejudice every year. But that's another story.

    I, too, would like to modify the story so that Jo ends up with Laurie :/ I'm with Jeanne, I understand why she marries Professor Baer, but I don't like it.

    As for the didactic tone, I didn't mind it when I was younger, but I think I'd find it more than a bit annoying if I were to read the book for the first time at 26. Books that were good for us while we were young girls may not feel as good now that we're adults... sad, but necessary, I think.

    I've never read Little Men - my local library never had a copy, I don't know why - but I *loved* the cartoon series. I had a soft spot for Demi and Daisy, Meg's children, especially for Daisy, who later falls in love with one of the boys in Jo's school, a poor orphan named Nat, while Meg doesn't approve of their relationship because she thinks he's too poor and "not good enough" for her daughter, blah blah blah. But I digress. I did read Jo's Boys, more than once, but found it a bit hard to follow. There are so many characters introduced in Little Men, and it seems like Alcott wanted to show her readers who ended up with whom, etc.

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  7. After reading (and loving) Geraldine Brooks' March earlier this year, I ran out to the bookstore to get Little Women and was absolutely determined to read it this year! Of course, 2009 got away from me... and I haven't read it yet. It's just one of those "classic" books that I've personally overlooked. But your review has inspired me! I definitely want to read it soon, especially in winter.

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  8. I still feel bad ruining this ending for you! (And anyone else on Twitter who hadn't read it at the time.) I am not a huge fan of this book. I read it several years ago and just couldn't get over the ending, and I think five girls in a family would drive me crazy :-)

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  9. I read Little Women about 10 years ago, so I don't remember it too clearly. However, I do remember really enjoying it at 13 years old. I liked Jo's spirit. I was able to relate to her since I was raised in a very conservative family.

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  10. oh my my! You really need to see the old version of the movie with Kate Hepburn !!! it's a fantastic movie!

    I've toyed with getting this book but I've loved the movie for so long I am still not sure..

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  11. I can't believe I've never read this. I should be ashamed of myself really. My mom absolutely adored this, and Alcott's other books, when she was a girl...and she still has her copies from childhood. She gave me my own copy of Little Women when I was a kid, but I never read it. Bad daughter! :) My mom even has this beautiful quilt that my grandma made her...it has these large patches with scenes from the book embroidered on them. I'll have to try to remember to take a picture sometime. And I really must read this book!!! My mom will love you forever if I tell her you finally got me to read it. :)

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  12. Chalk me up as another reader who hasn't read this classic. There have definitely been some gaps in my literary education! But it is loaded on my Kindle, and at some point, hopefull this year, I will read it.

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  13. (OK, spoilery comment, just warning anyone)



    I think for me the interesting thing about Little Women - and the thing that makes it difficult - is that Ms Alcott seems to equate growing up with giveing up a piece of yourself. Jo, of course, gives up a great deal, Meg transforms herself into the 'perfect wife' who has little self outside of her role as mother and companion, Beth, too transcendant, simply has to die, and Amy essentially transforms herself into a doll for Laurie to play with - and the affair between Laurie and Amy is one of the most disturbing aspects of the book to me. The people who maintain an independent self are portrayed as perhaps loveable, maybe endearing, but also sort of incomplete: Hannah and Aunt Josephine. I actually talked about this a little in a paper I wrote last semester, talking about the importance of sorority to 19th century woman authors and poets. I always wonder, reading this book, if Ms Alcott really WAS happy with her life, or if she wanted to be what she was - a little girl, without the strictures of childhood. It's sort of a quinteseential novel on 19th century American women: on the one hand, there is the frontier spunk and independence that was a part of the psyche image of American women, and then there is the need fo propriety and form, sort of that nouveau-riche nascent need to prove that America is just as good as those old countries.

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  14. I read it when I was a teenager and I loved parts of it. And really disliked parts of it. I used to just re-read the parts I liked. I do remember that the poem "In the Garrett" used to make me bawl. Tears running down my cheeks.

    I really liked Jo, I wanted to be a poet growing up so she was the one I identified the most with.

    Meg bored me. I think I would have liked Amy better if I had been closer to her age when I first read the books. I thought Beth was a wet blanket. Sorry but I did.

    I have started to read Jo's Boys and Little Men but I didn't like them as much as I liked Little Women.

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  15. I have never really had an interest to read Little Women, even as well loved as it is. I've seen a couple of versions of the movie so I'm at least familiar with the story. Thanks for your great review, Nymeth.

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  16. I'm glad you enjoyed it Nymeth. I only read it for the first time a few years ago and loved it. I must try the rest in the series :)

    Great review, btw. I love the Q & A :)

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  17. It's real interesting to be reading your insights. This was one of the few books that my sisters and I all loved the same. I've probably read it about three times but all during adolescence, so I can't really critique it properly at the moment, just have fond memories. It's a book close to my heart. LIke a couple of commenters above, I also wished Jo ended up with Laurie.

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  18. This is one I read way back when which is due for a re-read.

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  19. Little Men is my favorite book in this series. The life of the boys in the school always came across as the most normal to me of the books, though I love them all. (And I still cry every time Beth dies, and I'm not normally a crier.)

    The only other book I've read of Alcott's, outside of this series, is Eight Cousins, which I didn't care for. For all its warts, Little Women comes across as much truer to life. (I believe it was loosely based on her life with her sisters, which might be part of that.)

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  20. Oh, I so dearly love this book. I have a strong sentimental attachment to it since I started reading it at around age 8 or 9, and have loved it every single time I've read it. So glad you enjoyed it. And I agree, the Christmas surprise is wonderful. I also love the parts where the little mailbox flourishes between their houses, and the trips out to the fields with their books and knitting. And I loved Laurie. I think the first half is better than the second (Little Wives) but I love the whole thing. I have read Jo's Boys and Little Men and they are not as good, but I still enjoyed them. Here's my review of Little Women: http://never-travelled.blogspot.com/2008/02/book-little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott.html

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  21. I'm glad you liked it! I got a beautiful copy of this book for Christmas when I was seven, and I've read it every few years since then. Little Men and Jo's Boys aren't bad, but if you feel like Louisa May Alcott, can I recommend Jack and Jill? It's an excellent Christmas book actually, and one of my favorites of Alcott's. Also, oh, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are wonderful, and An Old-Fashioned Girl is rather sweet too.

    What'd you think of Laurie? I know everyone wanted Jo to marry Laurie (I did too!), but a while ago I read that Louisa May Alcott said she "wouldn't marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody", and that made me feel better about the decision. Though his marrying Amy struck a false note with me.

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  22. Great review! I still have not read this book, even though I own it. I really enjoyed the movie though!

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  23. Dear Author www.thingsmeanalot.com !
    You are mistaken. I can prove it.

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  24. A classic from my childhood that I must read again. I'm creating a list of those for 2010.

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  25. How wonderful that you read it too. You're right the lives of the March girls seemed much more freer and more relaxed than their British contemporaries. I didn't notice that but it's really an interesting point.

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  26. I've never read this one, but you've made me want to dig through my daughter's shelves and borrow her copy!

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  27. Love the review. I haven't read Good Wives, but loved Little Women. Jo was, by far, my favourite character, but I did really like Beth too.

    The characterisations and the story was beautiful, and I did re-read the book a few times when I was in my teens.

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  28. Yay for finally reading this book!!

    I've only read part 2 of this book (Good Wives) once, and plan on keeping it that way. Did NOT enjoy it. The first part, though, I love!

    (And since you've only seen the 90's movie, you should check out the Elizabeth Taylor's adaptation of the book. Quite good!)

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  29. Nice review of a great classic. :) I've read the abridged version of Little Women when I was younger...but I'd love to read the full, unabridged version now!

    Ooh, I've read Little Men (complete & unabridged) and it's very endearing. I read it many years ago so I can't remember much about it. Jo appears in the story as an adult, guiding the young boys through their daily lives.

    Read it and I'll await your review.

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  30. I loved this book growing up. It was one of my favourites and I clearly remember creating my own newspapers for my family after reading about them in Little Women. I feel bad that I have never actually read Good Wives and hope to rectify that this year.

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  31. I played Beth in a community theater production of Little Women when I was thirteen. I still remember the performance when I repeatedly messed up the piano piece I played (by feel, in the dark) to cue for the lights on the first scene, and staring up rapturously at the light booth as I gave my final monologue and hearing snuffling out in the audience.

    AHHGH! Kind of like the embarrassing over-seriousness of my acting adventure, I think this book may be very different when you first read it as a sensitive kid. It's polarizing. Most people either love it or hate it or just can't get the fuss. I haven't been able to go back to it. It wasn't even my favorite book at the time, but you've really hit it on the head when you talk about Jo's reality. When you're a kid she's pretty much the whole point of the book. There's no safe remove where you can think about the context of the book or the perspectives of the time.

    Another embarrassing memory: I actually phoned my granny in tears after finishing Good Wives around the same time. It felt like a total betrayal, a conspiracy of the universe instead of just a not-quite-as-good follow-up novel. All the "real" people obliterated themselves in marriage, it seemed to me. It made the betrayal of dreams and art and individual ambition seem like a moral duty. Inevitable. Alcott's case was convincing enough to really upset me. Or Jo's case, since she was still real enough to me from the first book that I couldn't dismiss her conclusions.

    I know you are right that there are still people who think like this, because I was surrounded by them growing up. There are a certain type of people who let their girls reads Little Women because it's "safe", and the girls respond to Jo's rebellion and vivacity. These girls see the obvious parallel between the March women's creation of warmth and freedom within their own narrow sphere as 19th century women, and the hope of creating something free within the narrow sphere of a religious subculture. I couldn't cope with that. But I knew it was being asked of me.

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  32. This sounds like a perfect book for Women Unbound Challenge. I know about the plotline because of other various sources, but never read the book. I've been thinking if I should, since there would be no surprises anymore. Decision.. decision..

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  33. Absolutely loved this book, so glad that you read it!!!

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  34. It was actually one of the very first books I reviewed, before I even created 5-Squared. It's not a terribly great review, but if you want the link...

    http://zenleaf.blogspot.com/2008/02/little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott.html

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  35. This is definitely a cozy wintery read :)
    Jo was my favorite too.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  36. Jeanne: I don't like it either :( Mostly because I think that to end up with Baer she had to become a different Jo.

    Kathy: So everyone seems to think. Maybe I'll still give them a try at some point, though.

    Steph: I know just what you mean. I've been neglecting my old favourites in recent years, and I miss them.

    Alessandra: Yeah, it's definitely different. I appreciated it now, but I bet it would have felt...bigger when I was a child.

    Meg: Geraldine Brooks' March was actually the reason why I decided to read this! I haven't read it yet, but I thought I'd read Little Women first. March will be next!

    Aarti: Don't feel bad! Seriously, it was for the best that I was prepared :P And aww _ but girls are awesome! I always wished I had a sister, but I only have a stinkin' brother :P

    Amanda: Jo was awesome, especially in part I.

    DesLily: I understand why you hesitate, but I'd recommend the book!

    Debi: Nope, you shouldn't :P But now you have to read it to make your mom like me ;) Cool points in Debi's mom's book = yay. And wow, that quilt sounds gorgeous! Do take a picture!

    Sandy: Well, I'm glad I'm not alone :P

    Jason: That's an EXCELLENT point. Remember that scene where they compare what they daydreamed as children with where they ended up? There's this sort of...pride in having given up so much that just made me sad. And yeah, I was more upset about Amy and Laurie than Jo and Baer. It just came out of nowhere and it turned Amy into a different person - or a non-person.

    Zee: You summed up my feelings very well. I loved parts of it, and overall I really enjoyed it. But other parts...sigh.

    Wendy: The reason why I decided to read it after all this time is because I think it'll allow me to appreciate March by Geraldine Brooks more.

    Bella, thanks! Kailana asked some great questions.

    Claire: I completely understand being too attached to a book to be able to critique it! And yeah, I'm with you all on Jo and Laurie.

    Lenore: I hope you enjoy it just as much the second time around :)

    Megan: You know, I'm happy that at least one person is telling me to read Little Men...I was getting discouraged :P

    Daphne: Thank you for your link! The little mailbox was wonderful <3

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  37. Yeah, I haven't even finished book one yet, so glad you didn't wait for me. :) I am enjoying my reread, though, but I have to find time to read.

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  38. I reread this two years ago and I really enjoyed it -- probably more than I did as a teenager, when I think I was bored by it.

    I'm with you on loving the era but very glad I don't have to be in it. I see what you say about it giving some limiting messages about a woman's place but at the same time, it's the era and I love the book regardless!

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  39. I've read this book three or four times (and I've been thinking of reading it again). Little Men and Jo's Boys are very good too :)

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  40. When I was little, my mom gave me a collection of paper dolls of all the March girls from Little Women. Since I didn't even know how to read yet, I was like, "What's 'Little Women'?" My mom told me it was a book and that I would read it someday.

    That's as close as I got to reading it. I know, bad me. :P

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  41. I am hoping to read this in the near future since I got a great copy at a local book sale. It seems like something I should have read long ago, but I haven't yet gotten to it. Great review, I am glad you loved this book.

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  42. Jenny: A Christmas book! I'm going to have to see if I can find it online. And I liked Laurie, even though I can see why he wouldn't be quite right for Jo. But I also don't think he and Amy worked either...

    Andrea: I remember enjoying the movie, but it's been so long...

    Anonymous: Thanks for the laugh :P

    Gavin: A lovely idea. I should do that for the Flashback challenge, actually!

    The Literary Stew: Their childhoods in particular really do, don't they?

    Anna: I hope you enjoy it :)

    anothercookiecrumbles: Thank you! I liked Beth as well. And I'd recommend Good Wives, but it's probably good to keep in mind that it doesn't live up to part I.

    Court: Thanks for the movie recommendation! And though I enjoyed it more than you, I understand about Good Wives.

    Josette: I'd like to see more of adult Jo, so that alone tempts me.

    Vivienne: Aw, that is so sweet about the newsppaper :D

    trapunto: I know that you mean...there was something about Good Wives that just left me so sad. It didn't feel right to see them give up so much. Sadly, the world is still full of the contradictions we see in the book. Baby steps, I guess....

    Mee: Yes, I think it would be a very interesting one to read for Women Unbound!

    Staci: I'm glad too :D

    Amanda, thank you!

    Naida, it really is :) I picked the perfect time to read it.

    Kelly: Sorry that I didn't wait! But I'd love to interview you about it once you're done :)

    Rebecca: I definitely still love it too. I think Alcott herself had contradictory feelings on the matter, and it's interesting how the book reflects that.

    Ladytink, I'll have to give them a try at some point.

    Heidenkind: lol :P Well, it's never too late!

    Zibilee, I hope you love it too!

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  43. I just finished Little Women today and came across your review while looking for other reviews to link.

    I think you make great points about Little Women being about separate spheres, it's interesting how traditional feminine values win out in the end over the subversive values (i.e. Jo wanting to be a man, the girls being unmarried.)

    I feel like I enjoyed the first part of Little Women more as well. I honestly thought when Beth -SPOILER- got sick in the first part was when she was going to die, so I got really sad, then when she really did die, it was sad to me, but not as devastating as the sickness was.

    Also, I liked that SPOILER Jo and Laurie didn't end up together. I thought it was great that Alcott didn't put Jo with someone she couldn't love in that way, I felt that was pretty true to life, as I've had friends get crushes on me, yet feel no attraction for them.

    Great job, Nymeth, you've give such great food for thought!

    My review is here:
    http://readingisthespiceoflife.blogspot.com/2010/01/review-of-little-women-by-louisa-may.html

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.