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On its 150th anniversary, four acclaimed authors offer personal reflections on their lifelong engagement with Louisa May Alcott's classic novel of girlhood and growing up. For the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley explore their strong lifelong personal engagement with Alc On its 150th anniversary, four acclaimed authors offer personal reflections on their lifelong engagement with Louisa May Alcott's classic novel of girlhood and growing up. For the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley explore their strong lifelong personal engagement with Alcott's novel--what it has meant to them and why it still matters. Each takes as her subject one of the four March sisters, reflecting on their stories and what they have to teach us about life. Kate Bolick finds parallels in oldest sister Meg's brush with glamour at the Moffats' ball and her own complicated relationship with clothes. Jenny Zhang confesses to liking Jo least among the sisters when she first read the novel as a girl, uncomfortable in finding so much of herself in a character she feared was too unfeminine. Carmen Maria Machado writes about the real-life tragedy of Lizzie Alcott, the inspiration for third sister Beth, and the horror story that can result from not being the author of your own life's narrative. And Jane Smiley rehabilitates the reputation of youngest sister Amy, whom she sees as a modern feminist role model for those of us who are, well, not like the fiery Jo. These four voices come together to form a deep, funny, far-ranging meditation on the power of great literature to shape our lives.


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On its 150th anniversary, four acclaimed authors offer personal reflections on their lifelong engagement with Louisa May Alcott's classic novel of girlhood and growing up. For the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley explore their strong lifelong personal engagement with Alc On its 150th anniversary, four acclaimed authors offer personal reflections on their lifelong engagement with Louisa May Alcott's classic novel of girlhood and growing up. For the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley explore their strong lifelong personal engagement with Alcott's novel--what it has meant to them and why it still matters. Each takes as her subject one of the four March sisters, reflecting on their stories and what they have to teach us about life. Kate Bolick finds parallels in oldest sister Meg's brush with glamour at the Moffats' ball and her own complicated relationship with clothes. Jenny Zhang confesses to liking Jo least among the sisters when she first read the novel as a girl, uncomfortable in finding so much of herself in a character she feared was too unfeminine. Carmen Maria Machado writes about the real-life tragedy of Lizzie Alcott, the inspiration for third sister Beth, and the horror story that can result from not being the author of your own life's narrative. And Jane Smiley rehabilitates the reputation of youngest sister Amy, whom she sees as a modern feminist role model for those of us who are, well, not like the fiery Jo. These four voices come together to form a deep, funny, far-ranging meditation on the power of great literature to shape our lives.

30 review for March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women

  1. 4 out of 5

    Teresa

    3.5 stars The first three essays are highly personal; the last is not. All four illustrate the enduring, ongoing relevance of Little Women and its characters. In her essay on Meg, Kate Bolick writes of her own relatable relationship to clothes, what Virginia Woolf called “frock consciousness.” Intriguingly, Bolick posits that if Woolf had read Alcott (Bolick’s research shows Woolf didn’t), Woolf would’ve been able to expand on this consciousness she writes of in her journals and we’d be further al 3.5 stars The first three essays are highly personal; the last is not. All four illustrate the enduring, ongoing relevance of Little Women and its characters. In her essay on Meg, Kate Bolick writes of her own relatable relationship to clothes, what Virginia Woolf called “frock consciousness.” Intriguingly, Bolick posits that if Woolf had read Alcott (Bolick’s research shows Woolf didn’t), Woolf would’ve been able to expand on this consciousness she writes of in her journals and we’d be further along in understanding the topic than we are now. In Bolick’s mentions of her own “spinsterhood” (and her book on the topic), you get the feeling she might’ve liked to have written about Jo. In her essay on Jo, Jenny Zhang writes of almost feeling insulted, certainly feeling pigeonholed, in that she’d been asked to write about Jo. Since childhood, she’s resisted the idea that she is so much like Jo, fearing Jo isn’t feminine enough. But through Jo she has grown to understand why her parents desperately wanted her to conform to their ideals of womanhood. In her essay on Beth, Carmen Maria Machado writes of her own childhood illness and her adolescent, obsessive reading of “sick-lit.” In contrast to the flat character of Beth, she gives us the darker details of the real-life Lizzie’s illness and death. I enjoyed the bits of Lizzie’s letters that were transcribed by Susan Bailey, who’s working on a biography of Lizzie Alcott. Machado, too, could’ve written about Jo; in addition, she slips in her strong feeling about (against) Amy. The first three essay-writers are all under fifty years of age and childless, as far as I know. And then we get to Jane Smiley. Seventy years old, mother of several children, she comes across as schoolmarmish. Her essay is so different from the others, it seems as if it doesn’t belong. Though she peppers it with phrases like “if I were Marmee” and “if she were my daughter,” she gives only a few vague examples from her own childrearing. Yet hers is the only essay that gave me new insight into any of the characters, though granted that’s not necessarily the reason for the book. In writing about Amy, she touches on the psychology of a youngest child and delves into examples from the text to provide insight into Amy’s developing and complex character. In her youth, Smiley related to Jo.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    This would have been a 3 or 3.5 stars except for that last essay. The first three essays were absolutely delightful, the authors analyzed and spoke from their experience but also interwove their ongoing relationship with Little Women in a way that was both talented and interesting. First is Meg, second Jo, third Beth; each of these essays has a unique voice and expresses the author’s unique relationship with Alcott’s masterwork from first childhood read to adult re-reads. The last essay, however This would have been a 3 or 3.5 stars except for that last essay. The first three essays were absolutely delightful, the authors analyzed and spoke from their experience but also interwove their ongoing relationship with Little Women in a way that was both talented and interesting. First is Meg, second Jo, third Beth; each of these essays has a unique voice and expresses the author’s unique relationship with Alcott’s masterwork from first childhood read to adult re-reads. The last essay, however, did not live up to its counterparts. It had an interesting thesis, that Jo and Amy as character foils also embody two different types of feminists, which the essay completely neglected to flesh out and actually make a case for. Moreover, the essay did not have the personal or researched support of the other three, resulting in many sentences of “if I had been Amy’s mother...”. Well pardon me if I don’t give a shit! You weren’t, and neither did you live in transcendentalist Massachussetts. The relationship of the author to Little Women is not fleshed out enough to make these sentiments valid, and after reading the other three essays which contained actual research, the third essay is a miserable failure.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Largely good, but also a mixed bag; it’s unfortunate that the collection ends with Jane Smiley’s unconvincing, pedantic defense of Amy as a feminist icon and a misunderstood character of grace and growth. Carmen Maria Machado’s essay on Beth, on the other hand, is revelatory and has some exquisite and haunting imagery.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    I actually enjoyed the essays on Meg and Amy the most, which I didn’t expect. They felt the most reflective of the characters. I thought of Meg a little differently afterwards, and the Amy essay seemed like a very well planned out analysis. The Jo and Beth essays felt more like the authors telling their own stories and trying force a connection to the characters. I didn’t feel like anything made me think differently or more deeply about Jo and Beth, and I had high hopes for the Jo essay. Disclai I actually enjoyed the essays on Meg and Amy the most, which I didn’t expect. They felt the most reflective of the characters. I thought of Meg a little differently afterwards, and the Amy essay seemed like a very well planned out analysis. The Jo and Beth essays felt more like the authors telling their own stories and trying force a connection to the characters. I didn’t feel like anything made me think differently or more deeply about Jo and Beth, and I had high hopes for the Jo essay. Disclaimer - I’m a Little Women fan, but not a hardcore fan with sentimental attachment to any characters. A hardcore fan may feel differently. 😊

  5. 4 out of 5

    Eleanor

    An enjoyable read. I liked the chapter on Amy by Jane Smiley best of all as she wrote about the development of the character rather than about herself. The other three writers tended to write about themselves in relation to their chosen character.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rikke

    It's impossible to read Little Women and not look for glimpses of oneself in the sisters. The ever-moving sisters pass by like flighty shadows in a mirror. One second you're Jo, burning with genius and rage, the next you're Amy sighing for bows and balls and the luxurious freedom that only money can buy. It makes the book a deeply personal reading experience unlike anything else. It unites readers across all ages; to meet a fellow Beth or Meg feels like meeting a soulmate. I'd much rather know wh It's impossible to read Little Women and not look for glimpses of oneself in the sisters. The ever-moving sisters pass by like flighty shadows in a mirror. One second you're Jo, burning with genius and rage, the next you're Amy sighing for bows and balls and the luxurious freedom that only money can buy. It makes the book a deeply personal reading experience unlike anything else. It unites readers across all ages; to meet a fellow Beth or Meg feels like meeting a soulmate. I'd much rather know which March sister my friends identify with than which Hogwarts houses. I myself am an Amy. And that's not an easy thing to admit. After all, you're supposed to be Jo; the heroine of the story and not the villain. You're supposed to want Laurie to follow Jo to the end of the world, demanding her love. And yet I've never been and never did. I like the cold reality of Amy; the complexity and the inadequacy of her talent that doesn't burn or rage or shine, but exists quietly like a dream just out of reach. Contrary to Jo's beliefs, Amy doesn't get everything that she wants. But she does achieve happiness. These four essays highlight exactly that; the book's ability to make one identify so strongly with its characters, the need to defend one's choices and favourite characters as though they were part of you. Which is partly true after all. I adored Kate Bolick's take on Meg and the transformative magic her clothes works on her. The beauty of the domestic; Meg's much overlooked longing. I enjoyed Jenny Zhang's take on Jo and the feminine power she undoubtedly brings to the story. I was puzzled by Jane Smiley's analysis of Amy, highlighting her forward-thinking while also trying to put herself in Marmee's place (an odd choice for literary criticism to be sure). But, the true gem in the collection was Carmen Maria Machado's piece on Beth, drawing equally on Machado's own deeply personal experiences and the Alcott family history. Machado argues that Beth is forced into her angelic role by her surroundings; she is good because everybody reduces her to saintliness. When she dies her family members gets to define her; like the Alcott family forever nursed the myth of the deceased Elizabeth. It's raw and interesting and adds a layer to Beth's character that I never gave much thought earlier. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay collection – not only because it reawakens my favourite childhood book, but because reading it felt like chatting with old friends. Such a comforting and interesting read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Four self-described fans...talk in this book about their personal connection to the novel and what it has meant to them (as children, adults, or both). More particularly, each of the writers takes in turn one of the March sisters as her subject. ~ Preface Kate Bolick's perspective as author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own seems singularly suited to explore Jo's, and by implication real-life spinster Louisa May Alcott's, struggle against marriage. Instead, assigned to write about happily-m Four self-described fans...talk in this book about their personal connection to the novel and what it has meant to them (as children, adults, or both). More particularly, each of the writers takes in turn one of the March sisters as her subject. ~ Preface Kate Bolick's perspective as author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own seems singularly suited to explore Jo's, and by implication real-life spinster Louisa May Alcott's, struggle against marriage. Instead, assigned to write about happily-married Meg, she analyzes Meg borrowing a dress for the Moffat's party through the lens of Virginia Woolf's concept of "frock consciousness". 12 year old Jenny Zhang "decided by the end of the first page that there was no one I detested more than Jo March", for "her utter lack of giving a fuck when it came to adhering to gender norms" and everything else about her. But as an adult, she finds Jo/Mrs. Bhaer's renunciation of her childhood dreams as "selfish, lonely, and cold" to be disturbing and uttered as if offered "under hypnosis". Carmen Maria Machado's comparison of her own sickly childhood to Beth's might have been unsatisfyingly one-dimensional, if understandably so, given the shorter arc of the character's life. But it is enlivened by Machado's contrast of Beth's personality with that of her real life counterpart in the Alcott family, Lizzie, who did not go gentle into that good night. As a child, Jane Smiley most identified with Jo, but as an adult and a mother, she's come to appreciate Amy the most, and she makes a persuasive case that "Amy is the modern woman, the thoughtful feminist; the sister who stays true to herself, learns to navigate her social world, gains a wisdom and self-knowledge different from that of her sisters, and is more like what we aim to be today." Thought-provoking and recommended for anyone who's read Little Women.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Shan

    Worth reading just for Machado's brilliant essay on the tragedy of Beth, which manages to be poignant, very funny, and enraging all at the same time. Though the primary sources seem to be few and far between, Machado peers into diaries and letters and gives us a glimpse of Lizzie Alcott, the real-life sister upon whom Beth is modeled. Let's just say she's no homespun angel. Zhang's and Bolick's takes on Jo and Meg respectively are solid, but Smiley's Amy essay is a bit uninspired -- she plods me Worth reading just for Machado's brilliant essay on the tragedy of Beth, which manages to be poignant, very funny, and enraging all at the same time. Though the primary sources seem to be few and far between, Machado peers into diaries and letters and gives us a glimpse of Lizzie Alcott, the real-life sister upon whom Beth is modeled. Let's just say she's no homespun angel. Zhang's and Bolick's takes on Jo and Meg respectively are solid, but Smiley's Amy essay is a bit uninspired -- she plods methodically through Amy's highlights, frequently pausing to compare Marmee's parenting choices with what Smiley would have done in a similar situation (asides I found neither charming nor instructive). Amy is one of the book's most interesting, relatable characters, particularly to a modern audience, and she deserves more.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jill Williams

    3.5/5. Carmen Maria Machado’s essay on Beth was my favorite.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Carmen Liffengren

    3.5 Stars March Sisters is a deep dive into the character and nature of each of Little Women's March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Each essay, written by a different author, is like it's own mini-memoir, but written in a manner that reflects each sister. I particularly liked the essay by Jane Smiley about Amy. Youngest sister Amy shows incredible interior growth over the course of Little Women and Smiley highlights her observant nature. Alcott's treatment of Amy's maturity inspires even Laurie 3.5 Stars March Sisters is a deep dive into the character and nature of each of Little Women's March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Each essay, written by a different author, is like it's own mini-memoir, but written in a manner that reflects each sister. I particularly liked the essay by Jane Smiley about Amy. Youngest sister Amy shows incredible interior growth over the course of Little Women and Smiley highlights her observant nature. Alcott's treatment of Amy's maturity inspires even Laurie in a way that Jo could never do. Smiley's essay helped me to see Amy in a completely new light.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    3.5 stars. This was fine, but I'm not sure it will stick with me. I much preferred Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Mangler

    With the renewed interest in Little Women brought about by the new movie version of the story, I've found it very interesting to read about the book, the author, and, most importantly, how other women have connected with the book. It gives me a new appreciation for the book and makes me want to go back and reread it. I have a feeling I'd have a different experience with the book today than I did growing up.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    All of the authors in this collection read Little Women as children, and each of them wrote an essay about one of the four March sisters. All were interesting, but my favorite was the essay on Amy, written by Jane Smiley, one of my favorite authors. This was an enjoyable and quick read, and if you loved Little Women, you will like this book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    This charming collection of essays pairs well-known authors with each of the March sisters to ruminate on the connections these authors have with “their” sister and with Little Women as a whole. Published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, this special Library of America title does a great job at giving space for the Jo Marches of today: Kate Bolick explores “frock shock,” that feeling that Meg gets when she goes to her “Vanity Fair” ball wearing the borrowed gown, This charming collection of essays pairs well-known authors with each of the March sisters to ruminate on the connections these authors have with “their” sister and with Little Women as a whole. Published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, this special Library of America title does a great job at giving space for the Jo Marches of today: Kate Bolick explores “frock shock,” that feeling that Meg gets when she goes to her “Vanity Fair” ball wearing the borrowed gown, and a feeling many of us women get when we wear something SO DIFFERENT from our usual. Jenny Zhang looks at femininity and ambition and why she found Jo so lacking when she was a kid (but not so much now). Carmen Maria Machado airs an idea about Beth that I found so shocking that I gasped when I read it, and Jane Smiley tries to convince us that Amy is the feminist of our time (Greta Gerwig was more convincing). If you can’t get enough of Little Women right now, this is a great essay collection to dip into.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Susan Liston

    Yeah, well this was okay, just like two stars say. The first essay was fine, the second I started to bog down on, the third was full of medical horror stories...lose me quickly with that, and by the fourth I was just beaten down, okay, whatever. These are fictional characters, y'all. (Yes, I know it is semi-autobiographical.) Now I get that reading this as a child is a different experience then reading it as an adult. Knowing about the life of Louisa May Alcott adds a totally different dimension Yeah, well this was okay, just like two stars say. The first essay was fine, the second I started to bog down on, the third was full of medical horror stories...lose me quickly with that, and by the fourth I was just beaten down, okay, whatever. These are fictional characters, y'all. (Yes, I know it is semi-autobiographical.) Now I get that reading this as a child is a different experience then reading it as an adult. Knowing about the life of Louisa May Alcott adds a totally different dimension, sure, but she was writing to sell books and she WAS a woman of her time, no matter how "forward thinking" or "oppressed and constrained" she was, and she was trying to sell books and please publishers and an audience and make money, so all this speculation and analyzation and comparing of oneselves to the characters makes me a little crabby, I guess. Also makes me think of those annoying quizzes, Which Sex In the City/Harry Potter/Disney Princess are YOU?

  16. 5 out of 5

    Emma Jones

    Ok so this rating would probably be like 3 stars were it not for Carmen Maria Machado’s stupendous essay on the dehumanization of Louisa May Alcott’s sister, Lizzie, into the character that is now Beth March. For those of you who don’t know the story of Little Women, Beth’s task is to be a saintly foil for the other, less preternaturally angelic March sisters. Beth’s death is tragic, but the suppression of the character of the real-life Lizzie, Alcott’s invalid sister - who raged at her confinem Ok so this rating would probably be like 3 stars were it not for Carmen Maria Machado’s stupendous essay on the dehumanization of Louisa May Alcott’s sister, Lizzie, into the character that is now Beth March. For those of you who don’t know the story of Little Women, Beth’s task is to be a saintly foil for the other, less preternaturally angelic March sisters. Beth’s death is tragic, but the suppression of the character of the real-life Lizzie, Alcott’s invalid sister - who raged at her confinement and wrote sardonic letters home when on vacation, asking her family to write to their “little skeleton” - is the real tragedy. The other essays are also well-written and at times insightful, but the Beth one takes the cake. Come for the March sisters. Stay for the Beth essay.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    This is a fun book for any fan of “Little Women.” Besides being attracted by the subject matter, I initially bought it because I’ve read and loved books by both Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley, and—although I liked Kate Bolick’s essay on Meg and Jenny Zhang’s piece about Jo—my favorite essays turned out to be by these writers who first attracted me. Machado’s consideration of Beth is both funny (she has a wry, one-of-a-kind voice that I just love reading) and heartbreaking, as she cites pri This is a fun book for any fan of “Little Women.” Besides being attracted by the subject matter, I initially bought it because I’ve read and loved books by both Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley, and—although I liked Kate Bolick’s essay on Meg and Jenny Zhang’s piece about Jo—my favorite essays turned out to be by these writers who first attracted me. Machado’s consideration of Beth is both funny (she has a wry, one-of-a-kind voice that I just love reading) and heartbreaking, as she cites primary sources to reveal the trials of the real-life model for Beth, Lizzie Alcott. And I have to say that I’m surprised by the negative reactions in other Goodreads reviews of Smiley’s rehabilitative essay on Amy. It contained well-observed literary criticism and astute textual analysis, gave me new insights into this often maligned character, and made me want to re-read ”Little Women” more than any of the other essays had. I appreciated each of the pieces, however, and would recommend this book to anyone who has fond memories of reading (and re-reading over and over again!) Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Pearl Grace

    I love nonfiction such as this, relatable to literary characters. I enjoyed KateBolick's essay on Meg and Jane Smiley's take on Amy. I definitely identified to each March sister at some point in the story.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Shaazia

    Such great insight into one of our most beloved classics! Now I feel like rereading Little Women.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Niamh

    I really enjoyed this book. My only wish? That it were longer - and that more female writers from different walks of life could talk about the way the book impacted them, whether positively or negatively. This quartet of authors discuss how each girl affected their lives, how they connected with them and how they existed as figures within their lives. I want to hear more perspectives, more ideas and thoughts - but this little appetiser was a wonderful introduction to how 'Little Women' continues I really enjoyed this book. My only wish? That it were longer - and that more female writers from different walks of life could talk about the way the book impacted them, whether positively or negatively. This quartet of authors discuss how each girl affected their lives, how they connected with them and how they existed as figures within their lives. I want to hear more perspectives, more ideas and thoughts - but this little appetiser was a wonderful introduction to how 'Little Women' continues to affect generations of women long after its publication.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

    This is a non fiction book discussing a fiction book: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was interesting and made me re-evaluate why I liked Little Women growing up.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Worth reading for Jane Smiley’s take on Amy :) she’s been redeemed / re-envisioned / acknowledged and seen.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Scout

    All four essays were quite different, and quite good. Each brought quite a personal touch to the discussion of one of the March sisters, comparisons with the author's own lives from larger things like a whole upbringing, to smaller things like choosing a single dress to wear to an awkward social function. Got some nice kicks of nostalgia just from remembering Little Women itself, and it was interesting to learn about Louisa May Alcott's life, which I didn't know much about before, besides the fac All four essays were quite different, and quite good. Each brought quite a personal touch to the discussion of one of the March sisters, comparisons with the author's own lives from larger things like a whole upbringing, to smaller things like choosing a single dress to wear to an awkward social function. Got some nice kicks of nostalgia just from remembering Little Women itself, and it was interesting to learn about Louisa May Alcott's life, which I didn't know much about before, besides the fact that she based the Marches heavily on her own family. I don't think the essays were too short, exactly, but the book is a thin volume and it did speed by-- it makes me want essays on Marmee and Laurie and Aunt March too! The only one of the four authors I had read before was Carmen Maria Machado, but this makes me want to go out and pick up the other essayists' previous work.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    March Sisters (2019) is a slim but powerful anthology, with one essay dedicated to each of the four iconic sisters. While the collection has one big (queer) blind spot, and a bit of a speedbump toward the end, these quibbles are outweighed by the essays’ deeply personal takes on identity, ambition, and what it means—and has meant—to be a woman. Full review: https://www.autostraddle.com/wheres-t... March Sisters (2019) is a slim but powerful anthology, with one essay dedicated to each of the four iconic sisters. While the collection has one big (queer) blind spot, and a bit of a speedbump toward the end, these quibbles are outweighed by the essays’ deeply personal takes on identity, ambition, and what it means—and has meant—to be a woman. Full review: https://www.autostraddle.com/wheres-t...

  25. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn

    Full disclosure- I did not finish Jane Smiley's essay, which is a meditation on motherhood and what SHE would do if Amy were her child, which I found extremely boring. The other three are fine, nothing earth shattering.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joan

    Four sisters, four writers – with the segments going in age order from Meg on down to Amy. The corresponding authors are Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley. Each essay is as different as were the four March sisters, and each is satisfying to some degree, or not. Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, and an accomplished journalist, writes about the episode in which Meg goes off for a visit with prosperous friends, but feels insecure and self-consc Four sisters, four writers – with the segments going in age order from Meg on down to Amy. The corresponding authors are Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley. Each essay is as different as were the four March sisters, and each is satisfying to some degree, or not. Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, and an accomplished journalist, writes about the episode in which Meg goes off for a visit with prosperous friends, but feels insecure and self-conscious about her modest circumstances. Having no suitable clothes of her own and craving the beauty and glamour the right gown will give her, she is lent a dress, shoes, and attends a dance looking quite unlike herself. Laurie sees her in her finery and clearly disapproves. Meg is quite stung and embarrassed by the criticism but gets through the evening champagne in hand. Bolick relates a similar event early in her working life in which she too is lent a glamorous dress for a special event. She is accompanied by a critical male colleague who makes her feel even more uncomfortable, and the evening changes the balance in their relationship. Years later she looks back and makes peace with her younger self. How we see ourselves, and our unease with how we fit in is a source of great anxiety for many women, and it is often played out in our obsession with having the right clothes. It's a good essay, and the analogy is solid. Four stars. Zhang, a prize-winning poet and essayist, tackles Jo. Zhang immigrated to the United States as a young child. She aspired to be a writer who is a bold, brave girl, as opposed to a woman, because she perceived the role of women as dutiful, subservient and lacking independence. Zhang's parents wanted her to pursue a profession that would make her successful, but in a safe way – not as a writer. Zhang resisted reading Little Women, because she imagined the March girls as delicate flowers, but when she finally read the book later on as a pre-teen with ideas about romance and femininity, she was offended by Jo's behavior. Zhang was critical of Jo's non-traditional behavior much like the way Zhang's mother criticized her for wanting to pursue writing career. We all know the passage in which Jo seeks help from her mother, Marmee, in controlling her temper when Marmee confides her own anger. Zhang had also observed her own mother's hidden anger over her thwarted ambitions – in public settings, her mother was a model of generosity, solicitousness and kindness, but in the privacy of home she lashed out at her husband and daughter. Zhang examines Jo's character throughout the book and has researched the Alcott family. There are many known parallels between them and the Marches of Little Women, and she reveals some further information about the Alcotts and draws some of her own conclusions about them. She also shares more about her own family relationships now that she is a grown woman, but she concludes that she is uncertain of them, as well as her view of Jo and about Little Women. Perhaps in time, with age, she will look upon it all with the greater clarity of distance and maturity. Three stars. Carmen Maria Machado is an acclaimed essayist and critic who writes about Beth's illness and decline, but also about her own illnesses in childhood and forward. In fact, much of her essay is more about her own life discoveries, but against the background of Little Women and the Alcott family. Lizzie was the real-life Alcott sister who died young, passing away at twenty-two after several years of illness. There was great grief in the family, as would have been expected. Having not had the opportunity to create accomplishments like her sisters Louisa or May (the model for Amy), perhaps there was not so much to say about her, other than that she was kind and gentle, "a dear". Her counterpart, Beth, is much the same, though in Little Women, her music is strongly presented as her gift. She is perhaps the most difficult to portray as she is the most enigmatic. But, with so much emphasis on the essay's author, rather than on the character of Beth, I'll say two stars. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley wraps it up with her essay about Amy. Through the decades, she was often looked upon as the least appealing of the sisters, the spoiled youngest daughter who burns Jo's novel, and ultimately captures the heart of Laurie. Most readers idolized Jo, the center of the book, and who is the most like Louisa May Alcott herself. Smiley tells us that she grew to like Amy the best, and I have to agree. Amy has a talent for art and the ambition to pursue it. Unlike Jo, she is pragmatic, and practical in going about getting what she wants. She finds a balance. She becomes the companion to rich Aunt March, and accompanies her to Europe, where she can also get the art training she craves and absorbs the lessons of a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Amy also recognizes that she lives in the man's world of her day, and that her options for independence are limited. Happily, she and Laurie fall in love, and she also continues to pursue her art. Perhaps it is Smiley's more removed view of the book (she is by far the oldest of the four essayists), and that she is focused on Amy's character rather than on her own, or it could be the fluidity of her writing, but I found her section to be both the most interesting and illuminating. It is by far the most satisfying of the essays and rates five stars.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jessie

    Believe it or not, I saw Kate Bolick in the gift shop at Orchard House attending the first of two sesquicentennial celebrations held to commemorate the original pub date of Little Women Part I and II (respectively). She was there doing research for this very book! I know because when she came up to the counter I actually recognized her from the cover of her bestseller Spinster. Coincidentally I had just listened to an episode of my beloved Dear Sugar Podcast featuring Bolick. I told her as much. Believe it or not, I saw Kate Bolick in the gift shop at Orchard House attending the first of two sesquicentennial celebrations held to commemorate the original pub date of Little Women Part I and II (respectively). She was there doing research for this very book! I know because when she came up to the counter I actually recognized her from the cover of her bestseller Spinster. Coincidentally I had just listened to an episode of my beloved Dear Sugar Podcast featuring Bolick. I told her as much. I had thoroughly enjoyed the episode (which was, I think, on the topic of single hood) but I didn’t say much more than that because I had a colossal line of customers to help and she, presumably, had some research to do. I did, however, encourage her to speak with Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House, who was somewhere on the grounds. I really enjoyed this collection of four essays. One for each sister. Though, I am undeniably the exact right audience for this book: a super fan of Little Women. As such, I was delighted to read the ways in which four authors embraced, rejected, and grappled with their identities using the framework of the four March Sisters. In general the essays were well researched. Intriguing footnotes and pithy asides taught even me a thing or two about the Alcotts and Little Women. However, I do have a question about the information Machado put forth in her essay, “A Dear and Nothing Else.” Carmen Maria Machado writes about Beth, in some ways the most enigmatic among the four girls. She explains that “Within minutes of Lizzie’s birth, Bronson Alcott began writing what would eventually be a five hundred-page unpublished manuscript: Psyche, or The Breath of Childhood. The book was a combination of Bronson’s meditations on the growth of the spirit and his observations about childhood development” (119). I’m sure this is true, though I haven’t done any research on this particular writing. What troubles me is what she says next. “Bronson did not write this way about his other children” (120). In fact, the opposite is true. Bronson seemed equally enamored with all of his daughters (though perhaps more critical of some than he was of Beth). When Bronson and Abba’s oldest, Anna, was born, Bronson put pen to paper that very day and went on to keep a copious record of her development all the days following for at least a year. While he may not have described the other girls the same way he did Lizzie, or attributed them the same ethereal characteristics, he spent just as much time observing and learning about his first and second daughters as he did his third.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kelsey

    3.5/5 stars The essays: MEG: I thought Kate Bolick did an incredible exploration of beauty and trying to match up with societal standards, using Meg (and mainly her trip to Vanity Fair) as a touchstone for those explorations. Bolick constantly poses the question, "Am I pretty, or am I plain?" and the subsequent desire of wanting to be pretty. I really enjoyed this essay, and I think it made me feel a little more favorably towards Meg as a character. JO: Though Jo is my favorite March sister, and th 3.5/5 stars The essays: MEG: I thought Kate Bolick did an incredible exploration of beauty and trying to match up with societal standards, using Meg (and mainly her trip to Vanity Fair) as a touchstone for those explorations. Bolick constantly poses the question, "Am I pretty, or am I plain?" and the subsequent desire of wanting to be pretty. I really enjoyed this essay, and I think it made me feel a little more favorably towards Meg as a character. JO: Though Jo is my favorite March sister, and the one I relate to the most, I think the Jo essay, "Does genius burn, Jo?" was my least favorite of the bunch. It felt less like a deep dive into Jo's character and more like a commentary on the author Jenny Zhang's life. I wanted way more Jo, especially since I've already done a lot of thinking about Jo as a character. I guess I was looking for more insights, but I just didn't find them here. BETH: Carmen M. Machado's Beth essay was good. It was around the middle of the pack for me, perhaps slightly below the Meg essay. I liked her thoughts on how the question isn't whether you are a Beth, but rather how to keep people from making you a Beth. I also enjoyed her footnotes and her look into Lizzie Alcott's life (the sister Beth was based on). It was a nice bit of history. AMY: The Amy essay was by far my favorite. Look—I've read Little Women so many times and have been a vocal Amy hater. However, I recently watched Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019) and I am reformed. Long live Amy! Jane Smiley's essay stood out to me because she really dug deep into Amy's character and (for the most part) kept herself out of it besides a few comments about parenting. I walked away from this essay with a deeper and kinder understanding of Amy. Besides Jo, she is now my favorite March sister. The Amy essay was precisely what I wanted from this book. I loved the discussion on how Amy is a foil to Jo, but still a feminist in her own right. Instead of trying to change the world she lives in, like Jo, she learns to adapt to it and use it to serve her in the best way possible. I love Amy March!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kristi

    This short collection consists of four personal essays. Primarily memoir blended with literary response, each essay takes one of the fictional March sisters as a point of inspiration to make contemporary 21st century connections to the 19th century novel . Each of the essays approaches the book with renewed insight in adulthood, contrasting with the author's youthful conceptions of the story and its characters. Each interpretation of the novel is strongly influenced by the author's personal life This short collection consists of four personal essays. Primarily memoir blended with literary response, each essay takes one of the fictional March sisters as a point of inspiration to make contemporary 21st century connections to the 19th century novel . Each of the essays approaches the book with renewed insight in adulthood, contrasting with the author's youthful conceptions of the story and its characters. Each interpretation of the novel is strongly influenced by the author's personal life experiences as a lens for how they experience the text. This approach brings unique insights to the novel, at the same time it limits critical distance in the interpretation of the text and the characters. In the first essay, Kate Bolik explores how our relationship to clothing, cosmetics and fashion shapes our identities, through an discussion of the "Vanity Fair" chapter of the novel, when Meg explores another aspect of herself through dress at the Moffit's ball. Bollick draws attention to the story as one from adolescences to adulthood, and how as readers we can relate to different aspects of the varied characters in our selves at different times in our lives. Next, Jenny Zhang discusses Jo as a foil for herself Jo represented the fearful aspects of Zhang's inclinations to unconventional Independence and her internalized fears surrounding femininity, anger, and the complications of remaining single. In the third essay, Carmen Maria Machaddo relates her own struggles with chronic illness and her family's perception of who she to the mythology surrounding Beth March and the way fictional narratives obscure the life of her historical inspiration, Elizabeth Alcott, to discuss the empowerment Machaddo found in taking control of her sense of self as an adult and the terror of being defined by someone else's narrative of who we are. Lastly, Jame Smiley takes a critical view on Marmee's parenting to defend Amy March as an alternate role model. as the youngest child, Smilie argues, Amy must independently form her own life lessons through trial and error, introspection from her life experiences to adapt to the world. As much as she sees growth in Amy's character, she also seems to depict her as a victimized character, who doesn't evolve so much through learning from her mistakes but through adverse social experiences. Smilie interprets Amy as the character who doesn't compromise who she is or what she wants in life.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Liss Carmody

    Four essays considering the four sister characters from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: one essay per, by four different authors. Meg's focused on the relationship between women and their clothes, on how we want to look distinctive but not stand out in a bad way, how our clothes simultaneously have to reflect us as people yet also form the basis on which others form their opinions on us. Jo's digs into the spectre of responsibility vs. the drive of ambition, the dichotomy between family and ca Four essays considering the four sister characters from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: one essay per, by four different authors. Meg's focused on the relationship between women and their clothes, on how we want to look distinctive but not stand out in a bad way, how our clothes simultaneously have to reflect us as people yet also form the basis on which others form their opinions on us. Jo's digs into the spectre of responsibility vs. the drive of ambition, the dichotomy between family and career and which self is the more real. Beth's assesses a macabre portrait of a girl frozen through literature on the perpetual cusp of womanhood which she is never allowed to attain, and considers the implications of this in light of the real-life inspiration for the character, Alcott's younger sister Lizzie. Amy's discusses the role of the youngest March girl in serving as a foil for the brash, aspirational, Mary-Sue that is Jo, but goes further to analyze how Amy represents the most modern type of aspirational womanhood, and succeeds farther than any of the other sisters at realizing Marmee's objectives for her daughters in terms of virtue and success. Each of the essays was well-written and thought-provoking, but my favorite was probably that of Amy, a character who is easy to overlook or laugh off in the first half of the novel but who comes into her own as a strong lead character in the second half. Smiley does an excellent job of tracing the lines of Amy's character through the entire novel, however, showing how the traits which Amy exhibits at twelve blossom in her into the culmination of womanhood by the novel's end. Far from being a petted princess who has everything handed to her by good fortune, she is a hardworking and diligent master of her own fate who is pragmatic enough to learn how to improve and ultimately get whatever she wants.

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