Decades before she penned Little Women, a novel which has been in continuous print since its 1868 publication, Louisa May Alcott was the vibrant second of four daughters born to a “bumbling philosopher,” the famous Bronson Alcott, and his spirited but weary wife, Abba. In the summer of 1855, Louisa and her family spent a summer in Walpole, New Hampshire, where they accepted temporary housing from a wealthy uncle.
Bronson, a transcendentalist who kept company with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, was diametrically opposed to earning any sort of income — which placed his wife and four daughters in a precarious position. Forced to rely upon friends and neighbors to keep bread on the table, Louisa grew up never wanting to ask for much . . . but forced to ask for everything. The only way out, she believes, is through her writing — and she dedicates herself fully to the task, imagining a world in which she’ll be able to support her family through her work and gain acclaim as an author.
In Walpole, the Alcott girls form a dramatic society to put on local shows and work for others through their mother’s various charity projects. May, Lizzie, Louisa and Anna gain reputations as kind, attentive young women, and May befriends Catherine Singer, the only daughter of a local shop owner. Catherine’s older brother, Joseph, is the man who unexpectedly inhabits the mind and, eventually, heart of Louisa — though life, tragedy and the bonds of Louisa’s overwhelming desire to be free may keep them apart forever.
Kelly O’Connor McNees’ The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a fictional look at what Louisa’s life in 1855 — her “lost summer,” the one which none of her personal letters or journals mention — may have been like. Like Jane Austen, Louisa was a “confirmed spinster” when she achieved literary super-stardom later in life and biographers have long speculated about Louisa’s private life and possible love affairs. Joseph Singer is pure fiction, but another love affair might not have been.
First, confessions: I won a copy of this novel back in April from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program. The book arrived promptly and, for some reason, has been languishing on a bookshelf since. I don’t know what made me wait so long to read it, but I’m a little ashamed that it took me so long to crack the spine. It was great.
Next? Well, I’ve never read Little Women. It’s an indisputable American classic, I know, and a book which has enchanted readers for more than a century. But somehow, it’s never been a part of my book diet — even though I actually own a copy. I read Geraldine Brooks’ powerful March last year, a novel built around Mr. March’s time spent in the U.S. Civil War and away from his “little women,” the fictional versions of the Alcott girls themselves. Semi-autobiographical, Little Women gives readers a glimpse at what family life for Louisa herself may have been like. And The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott takes it one step further.
As to be expected, Louisa herself is such a vibrant, bold and persistent character. She knows what she wants from the get-go, and nothing but family loyalty will keep her from achieving her aims. As countless tragedies large and small befall the Alcotts, Louisa — or “Louy” to her mother and sisters — must remain steadfast in her belief that she’s meant to be a writer . . . even when her plans abruptly change.
In this novel, Joseph Singer is that change in plans. I found their love story and slow approach to a romance endearing, sweet and realistic, even when Louisa was being unbelievably pig-headed about her feelings for him. When their hearts were hurting, mine hurt, too; when the trajectory of Joseph’s life quickly altered, I actually gasped. For better or worse, I was on this ride with them. And though I knew that it couldn’t end the way I would want, I still held out some naive hope that maybe things would be different . . . even if it was just in McNees’ novel.
The Alcotts are a fascinating group, and the period surrounding the U.S. Civil War has long interested me. Fans of Alcott, her popular works or historical fiction will find Louisa to be an intriguing woman — driven, determined, lonely — and I thoroughly enjoyed The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. McNees’ writing was lovely and lyrical, and she’s definitely inspired me to give Little Women a proper read. After reading this one, I’m curious about how much of Louisa I’ll see in Jo, her literary alter ego. My guess? Plenty. And that sounds good to me.
4 out of 5!