We are enormous Louisa May Alcott fans in my house -- so much so, my son's middle name is Alcott!
When I saw mention of this book, a novel about Louisa's sister Abigail May (or Amy in Little Women), I was consumed with need for it. I knew a little of May from our visits to Orchard House, and my wife and I tripped over an exhibit of May's art at the Concord Public Library by accident some years ago. But I never thought more about her; I just assumed the girl portrayed by Louisa was more or less that vain and silly.
Yeah, I'm the silly one.
I inhaled this novel in a matter of days. The May portrayed here is an ambitious young woman who wants more than her family expects; and worse, she's made to feel bad for wanting it all -- a husband, a family, an artistic career, money, a home. Teaching art to young women who do it out of obligation, May yearns to go to Europe to learn from the masters. Conservative New England mores combined with her family's poverty means she struggles for access to materials, classes, and inspiration yet the fierce hunger we see in Louisa's Jo (from Little Women) is just as urgent in May.
Atkins reveals a less appealing side to Louisa May Alcott, but she offers it with such respect for the Alcott family that I appreciated her unvarnished story. In Atkins' hands, Louisa's determination comes off callous and brusque, cruel even, and suddenly the bratty Amy I had written off most of my life seemed less selfish and more sympathetic.
In fact, May's life is rife with tragedy and full of unexpected encounters with the luminaries of her time. She makes it to Europe where, for a while, she has professional praise, income, and even love. For those unfamiliar with how her life proceeds, I'll not say more, but it reads like the best kind of novel, and I heaved a big, teary sigh at the end.
Atkins' writing style is lovely, mixing wonderfully evocative details with brisk dialogue, and I don't think one need be familiar with the Alcotts or the world of mid-19th century Concord to enjoy this story. It's a kind of coming-of-age story, an exploration of the obligations of family and the wishes of personal fulfillment. As a new mother trying to work on my novel, I appreciated the tension the Alcott women faced, from angry Marmee to impatient May, in trying to balance family life with vocation.
Fascinating and delightful, this is a marvelous novel for those who enjoy biographical fiction that focuses on figures less well-known. And of course, any fan of Little Women will want this one -- it'll invite a rereading of that classic with a new eye!