I re-read Little Women while staying with friends who have a dog named Josephine, after the spirited second eldest March sister. It was rather delightful to watch Josie the dog frolic and make mischief, while literary Jo did much the same. I chased Josie around the yard and chastised her for turning down Laurie’s proposal.
Josie’s owners‚ my old college friends, originally connected with each other in a freshman English course called “Books We Read Too Young.” (I was in a class called “Literature of the Suburbs” instead. It involved a lot of John Cheever …)
This made me wonder, did I read Little Women too young? There was certainly a lot that I didn’t pick up on as a kid—the Christian morality, for one. (Sensing a theme here, with my re-reads? I didn’t catch any of the Jesus allusions in the Narnia books either. Such is the life of a sheltered Jewish girl.) I also failed to notice that the Civil War was raging on in the novel, hence the reason why the March patriarch was missing.
And I loved Little Women as a kid. I wanted to be a March sister—I only had two sisters and we didn’t get along nearly as well, or have as many bonnets. I thought Laurie was the dreamiest dreamboat alive and was shocked and horrified when he ran off with Amy. And for that matter, when Amy burned Jo’s manuscript! Ugh, how I loathed Amy. Reading it now, I was pretty surprised that there’s actually no mention of Jo’s manuscript until Amy burns it. So while I was getting all pumped up to shake my fist and moan at the sky about evil Amy, I was more like “huh? what book?”
What else did I remember from the book the first time around? Mostly the plot twists. And Winona Ryder in a bonnet. It’s entirely possible that a lot of what I remember is from the delightful 1994 movie, which I’ve watched many more times than I’ve read the book.
What surprised me most on re-read is how non-shocking the plot twists are. Poor sad Beth’s demise is 100% foreshadowed and she’s real chill about it too, basically saying, “No worries, I never had hopes and dreams like you the rest of you guys anyway.”
And Jo and Laurie’s magical romance? Yeah, not so romantic actually. I forgot that Jo turns down Laurie’s proposal, before he ends up with Amy. I also didn’t remember that there’s approximately a billion pages of Amy and Laurie falling in love before they surprise their families with their marriage. I misremembered Jo being devastated and shocked. She’s pretty cool with it, she loves that old guy anyway!
The other thing that struck me most about the novel is just how long it is. The plot is slow, you guys, so slow. And long, so so long. And I’m a girl who loved Moby Dick! The story is told in endless vignettes, with bonnets and bows and sickness and work. It is not a book you can rush. Even if you really, really want to.
Now bear with me as I’m going to do something totally sacrilegious and compare this beloved classic to Twilight. I know. Stay with me. Breathe.
I always thought the sheer genius of Twilight—the reason why millions of teen girls love it, even if you don’t—is the pacing. If you’re an adult, it’s totally intolerable. It’s just Bella talking about how hot Edward is, how much she likes him, how obsessed they are with each other, over and over again, in endless ways. But it’s exactly how a teen girl thinks, obsessively, endlessly, repetitively. You live in that space. And the same is true with Little Women—the story is in the pacing. You’re living life with the March family, deep inside it, until you’re in that little cottage with them, until you’re so invested in why Mr. Brooke has been holding onto Meg’s missing glove that you’re basically squealing, even though you claimed to be totally bored and not into the book. The vignettes take you through the seasons of their lives, until you’re living them along with the March family.
And in the end, did I cry when Beth died? And when Amy named her baby after Beth? Heck yes, I did. And who can hate Amy after that? Could I have done with a smidge (and/or a boatload) less moralizing? Oh God yes. Did I think that all four March sisters were basically Mary Sues sometimes? Oh, yeah. They’re so sweet and honest about all their flaws that they might as well not have flaws. But there’s a reason they are beloved characters and this is a beloved book. It makes you care.
To answer to question of the course I didn’t take: I don’t think I did read Little Women too young. The March sisters themselves are teen girls, wrapped up in the micro-level issues of home and relationships. Though I understand more about the history and context of the story now, I allowed myself to get more swept away in the story and the storytelling when I too was a little woman.