To say that I am impressed with Jeannine Atkins's latest book, a piece of adult historical fiction chronicling the adult life of (Abigail) May Alcott, the youngest of the Alcott sisters, forever painted in common memory as the spoiled, selfish Amy March in Little Women, is a massive understatement.
In some ways, it would be more accurate to say that I have been absorbed by it, by the story itself and by the way in which Jeannine tells it. It's extraordinarily well-crafted, in close third person focusing on May, but in such a way that it's nearly impossible not to identify with her as strongly as if seeing things directly through her eyes. There was the night I started reading it, when I put it down at a point where May is tremendously frustrated and stifled, her inner rage boiling over into an attempted act of destruction . . . and I was so cranky that I didn't know what to do with myself. I hadn't been cranky when I started reading, but I identified with May so closely - and with some of the causes of her anger, such as family obligations and societal expectations (even though those don't affect me in nearly the same way as did hers) - that I was pretty much unbearable for the night. My poor sweetheart didn't know what to do with me.
The next day found me reading most of the book, though I stopped at a happy point. I knew enough of May's life to know she died after childbirth, and therefore stopped reading when she got married, so as to avoid freaking my lover out by replacing crankiness with sorrow. That I saved for a time the following day, when he was off teaching a class. It allowed me to be as sad and sniffly as I wanted without him becoming agitated on my behalf. I should add here that we both know Jeannine personally, and I didn't want him to be upset with her for making me cry.
And the book is a fine balance of detail and gaps, enough for you to go on without filling in every possible bit of information. Spare, lovely prose reflecting that Jeannine is at the height of her craft in this story, bringing the youngest Alcott to life with dignity, respect, and no small measure of love.
What the book is about
1. The life and times of May Alcott (later Nieriker), who became a fine artist despite biases at the time against women pursuing art in a serious manner. She was a contemporary of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, both of whom fell in with the Impressionists, and had pieces shown at the Salon in Paris on two occasions.
2. What it's like to have to compete for artistic space in an artistic family. Her father Bronson was published, as was her sister, Louisa. The family valued the written word far more than artwork, and May had to fight to make her way in the world - and within her own family. She also had to fight against the morals with which she was raised in the Alcott home, which repudiated the acquisition of wealth. (Her father was an interesting man, to say the least.)
Here's an exchange between May and her neighbor, Julian Hawthorn (son of Nathaniel):
. . . She said, "How can I paint when I've seen prints borrowed from the Emersons but not a real brushstroke from Michelangelo's hand? No one expects Louisa to write without having read great books."
"Surely you're not serious about art."
"I hope you don't say that because I'm a woman."
"I don't believe a single painting in the Louvre was made by one."
3. The relationship between two strong-willed sisters, with the extra wrinkle being that both of them were seeking actual acclaim in their professions (and at a time when the word "profession" didn't usually attach to women to begin with).
For example, May sold a book of sketches of the homes in Concord, Massachusetts, where the Alcotts lived among Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her publisher asked Louisa to write a short preface, since Louisa was by then famous for Little Women.
. . . When a wide, flat package addressed to her arrived one afternoon, May screamed. She wanted to remember this moment forever. While Mother looked for Louisa, May ran upstairs to brush her hair, run some ecru lace through it, and put on her new boots. Ready now, she tore the brown paper to reveal a book almost as large as a tea tray. The title on the violet cloth was printed in gold. She opened the book to a page with her name and the title written in Gothic lettering woven through a wreath of flowers and grapes she'd drawn.
She turned the pleasantly hefty pages to each of her drawings, then flipped back the pages to read the preface. Her face stiffened as she read Louisa's words calling the book the work of a student, having no artistic merit, valuable only because it referenced important places in the artist's birthplace. May let the book fall on her lap. "How could you call me a student? And the book worthwhile only for the places it depicts?"
"What's wrong with being called a student? You've referred to yourself that way, wanting to go to Rome or paris and learn from professionals," Louisa said.
"I've been working for years! And I'm a teacher, too, with pupils who look up to me."
"I thought you'd be pleased that I called it a labor of love."
"Which it is, but more. Don't you think there can be room in a family for two famous people?"
"I never courted glory. I don't think of posterity, but wrote to earn a living. And to make people see what is possible for an Alcott."
"Girls!" Mother squeezed both of their arms. "This is a happy day."
May pulled away. As she turned, the delicate heel of her boot cracked.
The fact that Louisa based Little Women largely on her own family wasn't lost on her family, and when May found her name scrambled to Amy, then saw how Amy was depicted (which the general public assumed was the gospel, naturally), well, . . . you can just imagine. Only you shouldn't. You should read Jeannine's book instead.
There still manages to be strong family attachment between them, despite their rivalry, and yet there's always an edge, and May is always (like Amy on the ice) seeking her elder sister's attention, love, and approval. That Louisa deliberately withholds some of those things is one of the sources of frustration in May's life.
4. How hard it is for women to "have it all." They could paint OR have families, and most who painted at all put their work aside once they married. May appeared to be positioned to change that reality in her own life, but for the small issue of her death. Nonetheless, the difficulty of being a professional artist and a mother at the same time - especially in an age before family planning was a thing - really comes across.
This particular issue isn't something that has gone away over time when it comes to female artists. as I'm well aware that many contemporary female artists who are mothers are looked at as less than serious about their art (even when that's clear B.S.). Here's a link to an article from this May about this very issue.
5. In a related issue, how constrained women have been (then and now) in expressing their emotions.
. . . Louisa's voice softened. "Of course, you take care of so much now, May. Mothers says it's the people who aren't seen who do most of the world's good work."
"She may be right. You know I admire her more than anyone. But I don't want to be as angry as she is."
"Angry? Our dear Marmee never raises her voice!"
"She counts under her breath. And tells us good lessons. But I don't think those are what have ground down her teeth."
"She's a good woman!"
"Can't good women get angry? I love Mother with all my heart, but do you think she was ever truly happy?"(p. 79)
6. Sexism. In one scene, May and Mary consult discuss May's entry in the Paris Salon, and whether it has a chance of being accepted that year.
"My humble bowl of fruit can't stand out among all the grand ideas."
"Noble ideas can get wearisome. One can hope, but we shouldn't expect fairness. The juries are fickle, not known for honesty or even knowing anything about art."
"I don't suppose it helps us that all are men."
"I've heard that when one votes for a woman, the others jeer, 'Is she pretty?' We have more opportunities here than at home, but still the Académie des Beaux-Arts is closed to women, and their students are the only ones eligible for some of the important prizes."
One of the most beautiful things about this book is that even though all of those things listed above are completely accurate and are part of the story, they aren't actually intrusive as you read. It was more that once I put this book down and found myself thinking about it repeatedly, I started finding all these themes and thoughts that are decidedly there throughout.
It is my opinion that Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins, available September 15, 2015 from She Writes Press (paperback or e-book only), is the book for every woman I know. And would be great for book clubs everywhere - especially those who loved books like Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. And should also be nominated for awards, for its lovely prose and well-told story, resurrecting the life of May Alcott Nieriker.