I’m usually iffy about books where a writer borrows another author’s characters for his/her own purposes, but I absolutely loved this. You must imagine a world in which the March family was a real one and Little Women has never been written. The book begins with a letter headed ‘Plumstead, October 1888’, in which Jo March writes to her sister Amy announcing the birth of a daughter, Josephine, to be known as Cissie. Fast forward to present day Islington and the Atwater family: English father David, American mother Fee and three daughters in their twenties. These girls, it turns out, are the great great granddaughters of Jo March/Bhaer.
Emma is sensible, practical and about to make a suitable marriage to a very nice man. Lulu, academically brilliant and socially awkward, still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and takes a series of low paid, dead end jobs. Sophie, an aspiring actress, is the youngest, prettiest and most charming/maddening of the sisters. They are a close family, the girls all living near their parents and often at home. There are no direct comparisons with the March sisters. Emma has a Meg moment over a pair of shoes: It was an absurd shoe, which would begin to pinch after an hour, would fall apart after half a dozen wearings, and which, by coincidence, cost precisely the sum that Emma and Matthew had in the fridge fund. Emma looked at it, and wanted it as she could not remember having wanted any inanimate object in her entire life. Lulu, short of money, wonders how to buy Christmas presents and reflects that Christmas would not be Christmas … if she could not give presents. Such moments are few and you won’t be thinking, ‘this one’s Jo, she’s Amy’ and so on. They are individuals who would be interesting to read about without the family connection and this is no way a continuation of Little Women.
So, where do the letters come in? Lulu is sent up to the attic to rout out an old book of family recipes. She never does find it, but discovers instead a trunk containing a cache of family relics. These are rather touching to anyone who knows her Alcott but the best find is a series of letters written by Jo to Meg and Amy. Lulu hasn’t time to read them all at once and decides to say nothing about them for the moment: Lulu found she rather wanted to have Jo March all to herself for at least a little while. Over the next months she spends more and more time in the attic reading the letters, until ‘Grandma Jo’ has become a real and inspirational person to her. Jo’s writings (very believable) are relevant to coming events in the book as the nature of families, heredity and women’s changing lives is explored.
For people who enjoy superior chicklit, the book has modern young women, their jobs, clothes and love lives, plus a wedding. Lovers of Little Women will be pleased to learn more about Jo and to spot references in the text. If you happen to be an American Anglophile, you’ll love how much this is a London book. I borrowed it free from the Kindle users’ library and liked it so much, I'm going to buy it. At £1.79, it’s a bargain.