Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNess

By Kelly O'Connor McNees
336 Pages
Published April 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Louisa May Alcott, who wrote one of the most beloved stories of all time, "Little Women", grew up in a much different household than the one she painted in the classic. Her father, Bronson, was a transcendentalist and a free thinker. His philosophies kept his family in extreme poverty because he would not take a job. The burden of keeping the family feed and sheltered fell squarely on the shoulders of Louisa's mother, Abigail, known as Abba, and their four daughters. When the girls were all young women, they moved to Walpole, thanks to a family member who offered them free lodging. And it is here that McNees begins her story, blending the well-documented lives of the Alcotts with fiction.

As soon as they arrive, Louisa, already in her twenties, is making plans in her head to return to Boston to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But when her oldest sister, Anna, confides that she is hoping to find a husband in Walpole, Louisa begins to doubt that she will be able to leave her mother. Younger sister Lizzie never fully recovered from small pox and isn't able to do much of the household work and youngest sister May is frivolous and manages to avoid it. But mostly Louisa is upset with Anna because she cannot imagine a future as a wife and can't believe that Anna would want to live the same kind of life as their mother. And, as much as Louisa craves her father's approval, he is a terrible example of what a husband and father should be. About marriage, Abba even says to Louisa:

"I suppose you will learn this soon enough on your own, but I might have understood my life a little better if someone had told me. For a man, love is just a season. For a woman it is the whole of the year--winter, spring, summer, and fall--and yet, sometimes it is not what it could be. What it seems it should be."
As a father, Bronson seemed to view his children as objects, rather than people:
"...her father approached child-rearing like a scientific study. He collected evidence, keeping written observations of his subjects and as the girls grew, reviewing their own journals. And like any scientist worth his salt, Bronson formed theories and then constructed experiments to test their veracity."
Then Louisa meets Joseph, a young man who is largely responsible for running his father's business. When she finds herself being drawn into a relationship with him that will mean the end to her own plans, she has to make the decision between Joseph and independence.

An encounter with the famed actress Fanny Kemble, whom Louisa greatly admired for her fight for her own independence, helps Louisa make up her mind.

"Suddenly she was in the presence of a genius of her time, not to mention a woman unafraid of upsetting the dictates of propriety in order to live her life as she pleased. She wondered if God had put Fanny Kemble in her path at this moment to remind her that life held the promise of unlimited and surprising joys, if only one had the courage to pursue them."
But when that life turns out to be harder than she thought, when she almost finds herself becoming a Jane Eyre, she begins to doubt her decision and a life with Joseph once again begins to look as if it might be a possibility for Louisa.

The book is well-written, well-paced and McNees does a good job of tying up all of the plot lines. She has clearly done her research on the Alcotts and does a wonderful job of tying in that research into what she imagines might have been the real Alcotts take on their reality.

"...her father was a man of many grand ideas and little commonsense. As a child, she had revered him and never doubted that the problem lay with a world unwilling to comprehend his brilliance. But eventually she had come to see him in a different light, one that revealed his flaws."

As a person who grew up loving "Little Women," I was concerned that this would take the Alcotts in a direction that I wouldn't enjoy, much as Geraldine Brook's "March" did. But McNees has carefully managed to make the characters a wonderful blend of reality and the dear girls that I fell in love with. I had some problems with the ending of the book. On the one hand, I liked that McNees did not attempt to alter reality but I felt that things got closed up a bit too neatly. However, that is such a minor complaint, it really didn't effect my opinion of the book.

Trish, of Hey Lady, Whatcha Reading, led an online discussion of the book with McNees and she was a terrific sport, answering all questions posted to her ahead of time then spending extra time going back to answer questions that had come up in the discussion. Check it out to learn more about the writing of the book. To learn more about Kelly O'Connor McNees, check out her website.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour! For more views on this book, visit the other tour sites.

Thursday, April 1st: S. Krishna’s Books
Monday, April 5th: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Tuesday, April 6th: The Tome Traveller
Wednesday, April 7th: Snickollet
Thursday, April 8th: lit*chick
Friday, April 9th: This Dangerous Life
Monday, April 12th: Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, April 14th: Reading Series on Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
Thursday, April 15th: Devourer of Books
Monday, April 19th: Book-a-rama
Tuesday, April 20th: Becky’s Book Reviews
Wednesday, April 21st: Lit and Life
Thursday, April 22nd: Life in the Thumb
Monday, April 26th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, April 27th: kerrianne
Wednesday, April 28th: Books Like Breathing
Thursday, April 29th: Sophisticated Dorkiness
Friday, April 30th: Mille Fiori Favoriti


  1. What a great post! This book sounds wonderful - a definite must read. I loved Little Women and from what you've described about this book, The Lost Summer, I must definitely buy it ASAP. I loved the idea of learning about the Alcott family and then having the author blend in fiction to create her own story. And I'm glad that it worked, because I hate it when writers try to merge two worlds together and then it falls flat. I'm definitely excited to read this. Thanks for the post - it was interesting and informative! Cheers!

  2. It was good, wasn't it? I loved it every time I picked it up. Now I just need to finish Little Women..well start it all over again because too much time has passed since I last picked it up.

  3. Just read this one and liked it a lot as well. I thought Louisa was a bit of a curmudgeon at times, but overall I really liked her fire and independence. I, too, was a little disappointed by the very end of the book. I wish it had ended on a slightly more hopeful note. Great review!

  4. Interesting that you didn't like the last scene. I admit that I was looking for a little spark between them, but I was also secretly hoping the author would change Louisa's life choices. I know that how the author wrote the book is very true to Louisa's life, but I still couldn't help but hope that Louisa might find and embrace love.

    Thanks for being on this tour!

  5. I thought I'd already left a comment on this, but I guess not. I've been anxious to read this book and you've got me very curious about the ending!

  6. I too loved the way the Alcotts were portrayed in this book. They felt familiar, but at the same time, not idealized. They felt real.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this and participating in Trish's book club. I need to write my review as well. I am with you on March. I didn't much care for it. However, the two novels were the same in some ways for me - I did not like the father in either novel.

  8. Great post Lisa! Little Women is one of my favorite books and I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

  9. I just finished posting my review of this one and had to read your thoughts. I loved it...favorite of the year hands down...I thought she portrayed the Alcotts accurately and I really didn't care for Bronson..he was very self-centered wasn't he???

  10. Thanks for the great comments and detailed, thoughtful review. Do any of you live in the Boston area? I'll be there next week with events in Concord, Newton, and Portsmouth, MA. Hope to see you!

  11. I really enjoyed the writing in this book, too. McNees did an excellent job researching and blending fact with her fiction.

  12. I have this on my shelf from a win, and now I am more curious than ever to experience it. Thanks for the terrific review.