By Trix Wilkins
An irresistibly disarming novel, The Little Women Letters is the story of a year in the life of the Atwater sisters Emma, Lulu and Sophie and their mother Fee, direct descendants of Jo March from Little Women. When Lulu finds a box of “Grandma Jo’s” letters in the attic, what began as a rather dispiriting year takes a turn and ends delightfully for all.
Things I loved about The Little Women Letters
Jo March’s letters are enchanting, true to her style of writing, powers of observation and quirky humor. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the letters, but there are of course favorites.
The one that tops the list features Jo going with Laurie to the Tudors’ ball and telling young Tudor (remember that scene in Little Women where Amy reprimands Jo for giving the titled Tudor the cold shoulder whilst smiling at the grocer’s boy Tommy?) that he is a dandy for having more jewels on his hand than her sister (and which Laurie to his credit just laughs at in the carriage on their way home – brilliantly funny stuff, I could imagine this actually having happened between the lines in Little Women!).
Jo’s letter to Beth on the occasion of the Marches’ first Thanksgiving without her is another favorite, as is a letter relating an episode in which young Demi Brooke asks Aunt March about her belly (really – Little Demi Brooke before he was “the Deacon” in the Little Women sequels asks Aunt March point blank about her belly. I enjoyed so much in this novel but even if I didn’t, it would be worth reading for that alone!).
I loved the fact that so many of the letters were written by Jo to Beth, even after Beth’s passing – this is something I can imagine Jo having done, missing her sister so much and not being able to help sharing significant moments of life with her.
The presence of Beth March
I had been prepared to miss Beth thoroughly, knowing before reading that there were only three Atwater sisters.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Beth plays a huge role in this book. Gabrielle takes care to honor her memory and convey the deep affection Jo felt for her sister and the bond between them. We don’t get to see Beth speak, but we do get to see the impact her life had on her sisters.
In the mere fact that Lulu spends much of the narrative a bit lost at sea wondering what she is passionate about and what direction she would have her life take, I felt the presence of Beth – like Gabrielle was saying that Beth was so profoundly significant to the character of Jo that Jo would not have been the strong, compassionate and bold woman she was without her sister.
The fact that Lulu is a good cook
I could not help laughing to myself at every scene where Lulu is cooking something delectable for someone or other. She has a degree in biochemistry but what she really enjoys doing is cooking for people (and she does it exceedingly well, so much so that her roommate gives her free rent in exchange for cooking their meals).
I absolutely loved Gabrielle’s sense of humor in doing this. It’s like a big joke on Jo March – remember that disaster of a dinner party involving lobster and strawberries swimming in sour cream soaked with salt? (She eventually had claims to making good coffee, and we’re given to understand that after her mother’s advice she masters the art of “plain cooking,” but Jo is no gourmet.)
The delightfully romantic twist
I spent just about the whole novel gearing up for Lulu to fall in love with Tom, because Tom is clearly the Professor Bhaer-equivalent (being an eighteenth-century literature professor who is older with firm principles), and Charlie her female roommate the Laurie-equivalent (being the wealthy half-Italian friend who eats her cooking).
And yet, there is a twist. I am not going to say what it is because the twist came upon me out of the blue (and I am rarely surprised when it comes to romantic novels or movies – I am now not allowed to talk to my sister during a movie we’re seeing for the first time so as not to spoil it for her).
It is a brilliant, romantic satisfying ending – it’s almost like Gabrielle went, “Ah ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming!” Yeap. I didn’t see it coming and I loved it.
Things I would’ve really liked to have seen
As these would not have fit neatly into the narrative, I understand why they didn’t appear in the novel – still, they are things I found myself missing as I read, being aspects of Little Women that I loved:
Letters from Laurie during the time he was in Europe and still in love with Jo – we didn’t get to see these in the original Little Women and I had hoped to see at least one sample in this novel.
Letters from Marmee to Jo encouraging her in her writing and especially in her loneliness – such precious notes from her mother that I would have expected her to keep.
Fee as a counter-cultural mother figure – Fee was understanding and intelligent, but I felt Mrs March had a bit more edge and was a more atypical mother of her time than Fee of hers.
The Atwater sisters doing some sort of volunteer or charity work – Similar to what Marmee and the March sisters did for the civil war effort and poorer families in their neighbourhood.
More Jo letters! I couldn’t get enough of the letters, they read like “deleted scenes” from Little Women. Gabrielle could have included ten more and I would still say, “More letters please!”
“A family of cripples, in fact – for we are not whole without her, we sisters who remain, and never again shall be.” Jo, of Beth
“Never, ever to take for granted someone I love and value.” Fee, to Lulu
“I’m just as content to sit with my book and improve my mind, which always needs it; rather than the house, which doesn’t.” John, to Meg
Some final thoughts on The Little Women Letters
William Henry Margetson’s The sea hath its pearls is my favorite painting. Partly because I do think it beautiful; mostly because it is sentimental to my husband and I (but that’s another story).
One day whilst on a mummy-daughter date I came across a huge framed print for twenty dollars – and along with it, a second print that looked so similar in style that at first I thought it was a lesser known pair to The sea hath its pearls.
It was actually a tribute painting by Joy Scherger, who must have loved and studied The sea hath its pearls so closely that she appropriated it seamlessly into a work of art of sufficient beauty and distinction to stand on its own (my sister actually prefers Joy’s appropriation to the original).
The Little Women Letters is like that tribute painting. The original Little Women will always be my favorite, will always have the sort of value that can only be attached to an object by virtue of its connection to a loved one. Still, as with Joy’s tribute, I delight in this novel not only for its own charm, but for its being carefully crafted out of deference to the original.