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Little Women: Two Books in One (Classics for Young Readers) Paperback – June 1, 2003
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"Recently I revisited a book I'd read perhaps three dozen times in childhood. Reading again from a perspective of adulthood, I saw the profound influence this book has had on my morals, my values, my longings, and my dreams."
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The four March girls -- practical Meg, rambunctious Jo, sweet Beth and childish artist Amy -- live in genteel poverty with their mother Marmee; their father is away in the Civil War. Despite having little money, the girls keep their spirits up with writing, gardening, homemade plays, and the occasional romp with wealthier pals. Their pal, "poor little rich boy" Laurie, joins in and becomes their adoptive brother, as the girls deal with Meg's first romance, Beth's life-threatening illness, and fears for their father's safety.
The second half of the book opens with Meg's wedding (if not to the man of her dreams, then to the man she loves). Things rapidly go awry after the wedding, when Laurie admits his true feelings to Jo -- only to be rejected. Distraught, he leaves; Amy also leaves on a trip to Europe with a picky old relative. Despite the deterioration of Beth's health, Jo makes her way into a job as a governess, seeking to put her treasured writing into print -- and finds her destiny as well.
There's a clearly autobiographical tone to "Little Women." Not surprising -- the March girls really are like the girls next door. Alcott wrote them with flaws and strengths, and their misadventures -- like Amy's embarrassing problem with her huge lobster -- have the feeling of authenticity. How much of it is real? A passage late in the book portrays Alcott -- in the form of Jo -- "scribbling" down the book itself, and getting it published because it feels so real and true.
Sure, usually classics are hard to read. But "Little Women" is mainly daunting because of its length; the actual stories flow nicely and smoothly. Don't think it's just a book for teenage girls, either -- adults and boys can appreciate it as well. There's something for everyone: drama, romance, humor, sad and happy endings alike.
Alcott's writing itself is nicely detailed. While certain items are no longer in common use (what IS a charabanc anyway?), Alcott's stories themselves seem very fresh and could easily be seen in a modern home. And as nauseating as "heartwarming" stories sometimes are, these definitely qualify. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, Alcott is a bit too preachy and hamhanded. But her touch becomes defter as she writes on.
Jo is the quintessential tomboy, and the best character in the book: rough, gawky, fun-loving, impulsive, with a love of literature and a mouth that is slightly too big. Meg's love of luxury adds a flaw to the "perfect little homemaker" image, and Beth just avoids being shown as too saintly. Amy is an annoying little brat throughout much of the first half of the book, but by her teens she's almost as good as Jo.
"Little Women" is one of those rare classic novels that is still relevant, funny, fresh and heartbreaking today. Louisa May Alcott's best-known novel is a magnificent achievement.