LITTLE WOMEN, BROUGHT UP TO DATE: MEG & JO

It may seem, this year, as if I am obsessed with Little Women, and it’s true, I have written a fair amount about the book this year, but that’s partly because the Field Notes Book Group read it one month.  In any event, my rereading of the classic book put me in good shape to read the new Meg & Jo, by Virginia Kantra, which is an entertaining update of Louisa May Alcott’s original.

When you’re modernizing a book from the 19th century, it’s always a delicate balancing act to figure out how much to change, to bring a character into the 21st century, and how much to leave the same, so it’s still at heart the same character.  Kantra strikes a good balance here. Meg is still married young, with boy and girl twins, living in the same town in which she grew up. Meg’s being a stay-at home mother is a bigger deal in 2019, and she and her husband, John, negotiated whether she would leave her accounting job and John would change from his low-paying teaching job (which he loved) for a job selling cars (which made more money but wasn’t as satisfying).  No such negotiations were necessary for Meg March in Little Women; the idea that someone would continue working after she married and had children was far from common. 

Jo is a little more complicated.  Of course she still wants to write, and of course she has to work to find herself a way to become a real writer. That’s essential to Jo’s character, and changing that part of her story would radically change the book.  In this version of Jo, she went to New York to get an MFA, and then worked in a newspaper until she was downsized. All she had left of her writing “career” was a blog, Hungry, she wrote about the restaurant business, and since that didn’t pay any amount of real money, she took a job at a high powered restaurant as a line cook, which is where she met Eric Baer, the chef and (this is not giving anything away if you read Little Women) the man with whom she falls in love. 

As you know if you’ve read any of my earlier pieces about Little Women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Bhaer as a worthy spouse for Jo, and only as an adult could I see him as the anti-Laurie and a better match for her than Laurie would have been (my mother, who told me this when I was 12, would have said “I told you so” if she were still around).  I have absolutely NO problem seeing Eric Baer, the romantic lead in this version, as well-suited for Jo, and that’s because he’s very different from Dr. Bhaer. Yes, they’re both German, they’re both older than Jo, and they’re both loving and good-hearted people, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  Eric is black, an extremely successful chef, divorced with two sons, and quite hot. Jo and Eric have a wonderful physical relationship (not too explicit, don’t worry) before they’ve worked out all the more problematic personal aspects of their relationship.

The plot of the book turns on Meg and Jo’s parents, who are three dimensional and far from perfect and idealized in this version.  In fact, their father comes across as one of those people who’s so good at taking care of people outside of his family that he has no time or energy left to be a loving husband or father to his family.  I have long had my doubts about Mr. March in the original Little Women, since he seemed to do very little to merit all the adoration he got from his daughters, so this take on him feels emotionally right.  Abby, their mother, is like Marmee in the original in her tendency to take care of everybody else until she collapses from lack of self-care.  In this case, she is hospitalized with back problems and ultimately needs surgery to correct them, but didn’t want to worry any of her daughters or ask them to help her. 

Meg, as the daughter on the spot, immediately sets out to take care of her mother’s health problems and her business, along with taking care of Meg’s adorable toddlers, even when the additional load of responsibilities proves almost too much to cope with alone.  Jo, working at a demanding job in New York City, is torn between her work (and her burgeoning relationship with Eric) and her eagerness to help Meg and her mother. The other two girls, Beth and Amy, are living farther away and don’t play as much of a role in this book (they’re going to get one of their own later), so much of the plot turns on how Meg and Jo deal with their parents’ issues and their own.  Any adult who’s had to take responsibility for an aging parent with health issues will appreciate the realism of their reactions and their behavior, toward their parents and each other, and I’m impressed at the way the author uses this fairly common adult problem to give us a way to focus on the adult lives of Meg and Jo.

The book is charming and well-written, the characters draw you in, whether you’re a fan of Little Women or not, and it’s a fun read overall, especially in the holiday season.  Re-acquaint yourself with the March sisters in the modern world, and settle in for a good read.

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