Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thank You, Gabrielle Donnelly

Occasionally, when I'm nostalgic for my youth, I will pull out one of the three Little Women novels, and lose myself in it. Louisa May Alcott shaped the literary landscape of my childhood, and I was a more voracious reader in those days, devouring what she'd written so I could move on to the next one.

I learned temperance as an adult. I remember trying to pace myself when I read the seventh Harry Potter book, losing myself in the story while fully conscious of the fact that it was the last time I'd ever read a new Harry Potter for the first time--ever.

I wish I'd had the wherewithal to temper myself when I was younger. I sped through Alcott's work with ferocity, and while I can't ever get tired of reading those beloved stories, it has the value of thumbing through old photographs, reminiscing about the past, watching Jo grow from a fifteen-year-old girl to a wife, mother, writer, and teacher over and over and over. It is comforting, alluring, and satisfying, but it isn't fresh, and I wish I'd savored the story more when it was.

So I have a debt of gratitude to author Gabrielle Donnelly, who wrote the charming Little Women Letters. I normally don't like updated adaptations of classics, neither do I typically write reviews of other writer's work (mainly because I'm afraid it won't be flattering and I will get karmically bitch-slapped for being a snot-nosed critic before I've summoned the gumption to write something of my own), however Donnelly's work is so incredibly worthy of being a successor to Alcott's that I can't view as separate from the canon.

The setting is modern-day London, the characters the great-great-granddaughters of Josephine March Bhaer and the various friends and relations that turn up during the slice of their lives that Donnelly shares with us (I was waiting for the girls to realize that their Grandma Jo is the Jo March, until it dawned on me that within the frame of the story, Louisa May Alcott and her iconic characters don't exist--rather, the characters are people. However, there's a brief mention of Anne of Green Gables, aka, the Canadian counterpart to Little Women, which made me smile), and the letters are missives between Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy that are accidentally discovered in the attic.

The best thing about Donnelly's work is that though her characters are expies of the three surviving March sisters (I appreciated not having a modern-day counterpart to Beth. I felt her death as keenly as a real person's when I first read Little Women, and would be unprepared to watch her descendant suffer the same fate.), the storyline twists and veers enough that the reader can't predict the ending point for each girl. Rather, the spirit of the March sisters is alive and well in the characters conceived by Donnelly, the language is lush and descriptive (having the characters be the daughters of an ex-pat American allows for delightful English idiom to complement the perfectly pitched histrionics of the New England letters, something that would've sounded stilted and old-fashioned had the story been set in the States), and the daily intricacies of modern life are woven beautifully and tied up neatly in an ending worthy of Alcott herself.

Little Women Letters functions less as an adaptation and more as equal parts homage and continuation. I  bought it thinking it would be cute, and instead fell in love with a new generation of Little Women. And for a moment, I was 11 again.

And I savored it.

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