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The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

July 12, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees
published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, April 1, 2010

When I was a girl, I was madly in love with Louisa May Alcott’s novels, a passion I inherited from my mother. In high school, I learned a bit about American Transcendentalism and Bronson Alcott’s eccentric Utopian vision that played out at Fruitlands. I wondered what life was like for young Louisa May Alcott, living with her father’s fascinating but impractical ideals, and how Bronson Alcott meshed with the wise, loving father on the fringes of Little Women. Kelly O’Connor McNees’s thoroughly researched, gorgeously crafted novel draws them both together, vividly sketching what life in the Alcott family may have been like. She also imagines a part of Louisa’s life, when she was on the cusp of becoming a committed spinster, when she fell in love and dreamed about marriage.

In the summer of 1855, Louisa is 22 and living in Walpole, Massachusetts with her family. She longs for freedom and independence and is eager to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But she and her beloved older sister Anna are tethered to their need to help care for their family. Anna longs for love and marriage, but Louisa is determined to remain single. Living in a time when a married woman is unlikely to keep her own interests and dreams alive, she is unwilling to forfeit her plan of becoming an author. Furthermore her father fancies himself a writer and philosopher and feels it violates his principles to work for income. Watching the drudgery and poverty of her mother’s life intensifies Louisa’s determination not to marry.

That summer Louisa meets Joseph, a young man who shares her passion for words and ideas, and they share the newly published, controversial poems of Walt Whitman. Joseph’s fate is tied to responsibility to his family and rectifying the mistakes of his improvident father. As the love between him and Louisa deepens, they must both make heart-wrenching choices.

This is such a lovely book; in a dreamlike way, it sucked me into its world as a wonderful novel should, recreating the language and sensibilities of the time in a way that seemed to ring true. It brought together the March family and the Alcotts in a believable way. It was rich with vivid details about quotidian life in a mid-nineteenth century household, and it touched on some of the important ideas and events of the day, including the controversy over slavery and the transcendental movement. It was illuminated by the presence of some of the great writers and thinkers of the time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It also explored interesting themes, including the struggle between personal desires and duty and the conflict between love and personal fulfillment in a time when narrow roles were proscribed for women.

However, I wish the relationship between Louisa and her suitor had been developed in more depth. I felt the connection, a meeting of minds and stirring of desire — I definitely felt the sense of longing. But I expected it to go deeper. I didn’t quite feel a depth of love and commitment that would keep this couple connected, on some level, for the rest of their lives.

Nevertheless, this was a novel I thoroughly enjoyed. I highly recommend it to historical fiction aficionados, particularly those who loved Louisa May Alcott’s novels.

See also March by Geraldine Brooks

Read More Reviews: Life in the Thumb; She is Too Fond of Books; Sophisticated Dorkiness; S. Krishna’s Books; The Crowded Leaf


12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2010 9:53 am

    Thank you for sharing your review. This sounds like a wonderful book. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. July 12, 2010 1:02 pm

    I was SO CLOSE to getting an ARC copy of this book! I picked it up, held it, and then put it back. I’m kicking myself, and it hurts.

    • July 12, 2010 1:02 pm

      Why did I say ARC copy? It is clearly a Monday morning.

    • July 12, 2010 4:47 pm

      You might really like this book, Robby! Especially since you’re a New Englander (aren’t you)?

  3. July 12, 2010 1:39 pm

    I so need to get to this one. Maybe I’m not reading it because I like having the pretty cover and the anticipation of such a good read winking up at me from my shelves!

    • July 12, 2010 4:45 pm

      This book does have a lovely cover, doesn’t it? That’s one of the things that caused me to succumb to temptation when I saw this book on a bookstore sale table. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. July 12, 2010 7:50 pm

    I loved this book! The love affair and the ending was bittersweet – even though I knew better, I kept hoping it would end differently.

    • July 12, 2010 8:00 pm

      I felt the same way! I already knew how it would end, of course, but I couldn’t help hoping it would turn out differently.

  5. July 12, 2010 9:07 pm

    This was such a fun book. I secretly wish she’d ended up with him!

  6. July 14, 2010 8:47 pm

    Wonderful review! I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while now. I really need to find some time to read it.

  7. July 16, 2010 2:35 am

    Glad to see you enjoyed it, as it’s sitting on my shelf. I haven’t read Little Women and don’t know a lot about Alcott, but I’m hoping I’ll like it anyway.

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