I will never have a favorite book. Ever. There are too many to choose from. But I do know which one I'd bring with me if I were going to be stranded on a desert island with only one read: It would be Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, a book I've read even more times than the Harry Potter series (which, let me assure you, is many, many, MANY times). Even now, as an adult, I reread it once or twice every year.
It's not just that I learn something new from Little Women every time I read it. It's not just that I love each and every one of the characters, from Jo to Meg to Beth to Amy to Marmee to Laurie and Old Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Baer and every other character who comes into it. I even love the mean aunt. But that's not why I read it so many times growing up, or why I still read it now. I read it because it makes me feel, and it does so over and over again. I never lose that flutter in my chest, those butterflies in my stomach, or that strange twist somewhere around your sternum like someone is unlocking the key to all your deepest feelings. From joy to grief to joy again, I feel like I experience all of life in this one book.
Little Women is a classic, but I also know some people haven't read it, so SPOILER ALERT goes here, as well as a directive to go read it right now!
1. Joy (With a Healthy Dose of #Awww)
The book opens on the four March sisters: Meg, the lady; Jo, the tomboy; Beth, the shy and good one; and Amy, the baby artist. It is a lousy, presentless Christmas. But still, everyone loves everyone, even though Amy is a little brat (she's a funny little brat) and they decide to get presents for their mother instead of for themselves (except for Amy, who, as mentioned, is a little brat). Their mom, Marmee, is the kindest woman ever. She helps her poor neighbors. The book takes place during the Civil War and Marmee also darns socks for and nurses injured troops. Their Christmas ends up beautiful and charitable, and the warm and fuzzies abound.
Who is this boy, this Lawrence boy? This Laurie boy corners Jo behind a curtain at a dance, after she's soiled one of her gloves with lemonade and has to hold it. (Apparently it's totes acceptable to wear one glove? This always confused me.) I see a love affair in the future. Laurie is adorbs, right from the start.
Beth, who's so shy she can barely say hello to Laurie, even once he's established himself as a common presence in the March household, manages to overcome her shyness in order to meet Laurie's grandfather in his big, expensive house. Even though he reminds her of a lion, she learns to trust him and begins to practice on his incredible piano, so much better than the rickety and barely working one she has at home. Beth is so sweet, so incredibly darling, that absolutely and completely deserves this happiness.
4. Second-Hand Embarrassment
Meg gets to go spend a weekend with some wealthy friends. She can't help it, she cares about stuff, about material things, and she knows that they're important in order to move up in the world (it's the 1850s, she's a woman... she's right). But even though all the girls are kind to her, she's embarrassed by her unstylish dresses and opinion about champagne (which is that one mustn't drink it). One evening, though, she allows the other young women to give her the 19th century equivalent of a makeover, and they show off her cleavage, smear her with makeup, and curl her hair. She feels tarted up, and when Laurie sees her at that night's party, he seriously disapproves. But Meg makes the best of it, dances with everyone and gets a bit drunk, and then vows never to do so again. She was playing a part that wasn't hers, and she goes home having learned a lesson or two about the shallowness of mere things.
The four sisters write and create a sort of literary journal full of their own recipes and poems and stories and notices. I may have never done anything quite like that, but I remember the days when my friends and I would undertake huge projects involving lots of notepaper, some kind of collage, costumes of all sorts, and the dedication of true enthusiasm. Life gets in the way eventually, of course, but while it lasts, this journal they create is beautiful (and, fun fact, is supposedly a copy of Louisa May Alcott and her sisters' own teenaged literary journal).
Beth is sick, Beth is sick, Beth is sick, I'm freaking out, Beth is sick. Even though I read this so often, I always need to remind myself that this isn't when she dies, it isn't, not yet, but it still worries me so much.
While Beth is sick with scarlet fever, Amy is sent to live with her mean old Aunt Josephine, where she is actually cured of some of her brattiness. There's a very funny and mean parrot, a mean-spirited dog, but the meanest of all is Aunt Josephine, who's really not so bad but seems to be through Amy's point of view. Aunt J is strict, but she does give Amy a really big topaz ring. The housekeeper, Esther (not the woman's real name, but one chosen for her by the Protestant Aunt J), is Catholic, and she basically teaches Amy how to meditate (she calls it praying, but she gives her a small room, a rosary, and tells her to just think about things). When Amy gets home, she creates her own little space like this, which may account for her eventual self-awareness.
There is romance a-brewin' and it is all secrets and intrigue. Brooke, Laurie's dashing tutor, has the hots for Meg and keeps a glove she left behind one day near him at all times. I don't want to know what he's doing with it (I never thought about things like this when I was a kid, dammit...) but the 19th century assumption is that he keeps it near his heart (and not any other part). Anyway, Meg is confused, Jo thinks it's all a terrible idea, Beth and Amy think it's lovely, but it's the mean Aunt Josephine who finally settles the question. Her declaration that Meg would never marry a poor tutor makes Meg so contrary that she sits in his lap and they confirm their engagement.
9. Tingly Confusion
The first chapter of Part the Second (that's what it's called; I know how silly it sounds) of the novel starts out with a sort of "three years later" statement that is pretty upsetting at first because up until this point, Part the First (I know, I know!) was all a big closeup of only a year or two. But then, the narrator begins to spill all the gossip the March family has accumulated over those three years, and I get all tingly since, well, I LOVE GOSSIP. And when it's gossip about my favorite characters in the whole wide world? Bring it on.
Once Meg and Brooke are married, moved in, and all set up, things start getting really real for them. How stressful would it be to move in with someone who you haven't even gotten to cuddle with properly until after your marriage? So of course they start fighting a bit, and of course there's money concerns, and of course they pick fights. And of course, even though (or maybe because?) I was lucky enough to have happily married parents, I get super-anxious about their squabbles.
Jo, still impulsive even in her 20s, is in a bad mood at the wrong time, meaning the time that her aunts are testing whether Jo or Amy should go with them on an extended European tour. Amy, who's all grown up now and believes in Manners with a capital M, acts like the lovely and polite young woman she has become, and Jo gets ousted from the trip. Poor Jo, writer Jo, who loves Europe for its literature and art and theater. Poor temperamental Jo who thinks for herself and doesn't let social mores dictate her actions. Poor Jo, whom I love with a fiery passion. Poor, poor Jo.
12. Angry Adoration
So by this point, everyone knows it's coming. Laurie is in love with Jo. Jo loves Laurie like a brother. Laurie is furious. I am furious because Laurie is suffering from the Nice Guy phenomenon. I adore Jo for breaking his heart but deciding to make it easy on him and leave home in order to take a risk in the Big Apple, all by her lonesome, where she becomes a tutor and writes. I'm also angry at Jo for turning Laurie down because I've always and will always ship them. I also adore Laurie for being as in love with Jo as I am. If I had to give a relationship status for these #feels, it would be "It's complicated."
Amy is traveling, Meg is pregnant, Jo is in New York (and Beth is at home with Marmee). Amy's travels bring out all my love for European travel, while Jo's New York endeavors hit a little too close to home (her day job, her need to sell out in order to make money writing, her budding friendship with a lovely intellectual with a German accent). Meg's pregnancy I recognize a bit less, having never been pregnant myself, but Beth's homebody-ness I can completely empathize with. I love being home. Plus, like Beth, I suffer from chronic pain. At this point in the book, I feel the so close to these women. Recognizing someone's experience and connecting them to your own... that's a special kind of bond.
Beth. Beth. Beth.
Before I'd read the book for the first time, a friend spoiled this part for me. She told me, "Beth dies at the end." I was furious and refused to believe her. But it's true. And it hits so hard every single time.
Laurie and Amy are improbably in love. Meg and Brooke's baby twins are adorable. Mr. Baer, Jo's German New York friend, comes to visit and they end up kissing under a broken umbrella in the rain like the perfect moment in many a romantic comedy. There is hope for the future, beyond Beth's death, beyond the confusion of these relationships. It is a future that's as different as can be from the one imagined by each of the sisters at the start of the novel, but it's a hopeful one.
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