>“Let us be elegant or die!”
I’d like to confess up front, I avoided reading this book for most of my life simply because of the title. It sounded so… painfully feminine. And as someone who’s struggled to make peace with their biological gender, I felt some sort of misplaced obligation to resist exposure to something that could so clearly hold no interest for me.
I was horrendously mistaken.
This is a sweeping family drama, set during the American Civil War. Languidly paced and often treading on the poetic side, it centers on the March family—specifically on the four young sisters who are all close in age—as they grow up throughout the book. There’s Meg, the kind and responsible eldest; Josephine, our tomboy protagonist (who happens to be based semi-autobiographically on the author herself); Beth, the quiet and virtuous; and Amy, the somewhat vain and more shallow-minded youngest of the four sisters. Their family is somewhat poor, and girls spend a good deal of their childhood coming up with interesting and artful methods of amusing/distracting themselves while their minister father goes off to serve Union soldiers as a chaplain.
I’m not really doing the characters any justice here, but it’s their growth, development, and chemistry that largely, and successfully, drove the narrative. There are undercurrents of empathy-building, imaginative fancy, gratefulness and optimism in the face of trials, along with a coming-of-age element experienced across several very different personalities within the same family unit.
For obvious reasons, I connected with the character of Jo from the very beginning. While the era, being what it was, would have made it particularly difficult to be a more independent and masculine-bent female, Jo had the benefit of the unconditional love and support of her family. Perhaps most significantly, she had an encouraging father who at no point made her feel limited by (or inferior on account of) her sex. Her struggle with herself, the world’s stifling expectations, and her own goals, is something most readers may be able to relate to.
“I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end.”
As a part of my needless resistance to this classic, I decided to listen to this one in audio book. I don’t regret that move. This particular narrator (Andrea Emmes) did a masterful (mistressful?) job of bringing the cast to life. With four sisters as main characters, I was concerned about not being able to tell voices apart. But Emmes made the experience into more of a richly layered auditory play than a simple reading.
*“I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now.”
* “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”