Move over Jane Austen. You’ve had enough movie remakes, zombie adaptations, and book clubs dedicated solely to your work and fictionalizations of your love life. According to author Kelly O’Connor McNees, it’s time for you step aside and let Louisa May Alcott have her moment in the sun. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott fictionalizes the summer the Alcotts spent in Walpole, New Hampshire. The novel reeks of carriages and courting, of petticoats and bonnets, of love found and then lost. McNees’ Louisa is true to form, abandoning a potential marriage and family to dedicate herself to her one true love: her writing career.
The thought of marriage terrifies Louisa. It terrifies me. I’ve been dating the same person for five years. We bought a house together. I’m not going anywhere. But the thought of prancing down an aisle to declare our love for each other in front of friends and family? Horrifies me. Completely and utterly horrifies me. (Even eloping and a simple city hall ceremony horrifies me, so don’t bother suggesting those. I’ve thought about it. Then I recoiled.)
McNees takes the various images of Alcott—spinster, author, feminist pioneer—and does her best to construct a fully realized character who embodies all these identities. She takes facts—the Alcotts did summer in Walpole, Louisa’s fiction was rejected several times, her father was a crazy philosopher figure, Louisa burned many letters and journals in an attempt to keep her private life private—and uses them to spin this tale of Louisa’s first and only love. McNees’ Louisa is vibrant, stubborn, and dedicated to both her family and her art and this mystery man falls in love with her for these very reasons. The Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a celebration, not only of the renowned writer herself, but of individuality, passion and big dreams.
In today’s world of non-traditional marriages, of non-monogamous relationships, of couples defining what their relationship looks like through what works for them, this aversion to colour stories and white satin shouldn’t be so surprising. But it is. Even my forward-thinking, liberal-leaning friends are (for the most part) bemused by my feelings. Not only am I asked on a regular basis when we’re getting married, everyone who does ask feels the need to place judgment and determine on just why I feel this way. She’s not with the right person. She has commitment issues. Her parents didn’t offer a strong relationship role model.
Perhaps these things are true. Perhaps they are not.
McNees does a good job of humanizing a revered historical figure through fiction and staying true to the generic self-sacrificing love story. Her prose is as light and sweet as the story she constructs. But, by god, is it ever boring. You know the story before you’ve even read it: admirable, flawless heroine falls for an admirable, flawless gentlemen and despite being completely perfect for each other he must make the sacrifice to help his family and, as a result, they can never be together. It would be devastating if I hadn’t heard it all before.
I may get married one day. I may not. I just want to have the choice and, like Louisa, have that choice be respected. Like Louisa, I’m not imposing judgment on others. This about couples making decisions that work for them, whether it’s a white-picket fence in the suburbs or spending every other weekend with another lover. Your relationship isn’t about me and when you do decide to make a commitment to each other, however zany, I’ll be there, celebrating your choices.
And if you’d rather not, I’ll celebrate that instead.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a sugary piece of historical fiction that opens up Little Women to new interpretations. It’s fluffy summer fun. It posits Louisa May Alcott as the Carrie Bradshaw of 19th-century New Hampshire. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. Some readers will swoon over this imagined reality and others will retch at the thought of picking it up, and that’s okay.
After all, reading, like relationships, is about choice.
Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist