Between the ages of 10 and 13, I must’ve picked up my worn copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women approximately 1,973 times. The first few times, I read it all the way through, and then later I’d just read chapters here and there before drifting off to sleep under my Laura Ashley-knockoff comforter.
Last weekend I was home in Buffalo for a whirlwind few days of family and rest, and some quality time with Zipper, Golden Retriever Champion of Cuteness. My old copy of Little Women was there on a bookshelf, and so I flipped it open again, expecting to find nothing terribly interesting and only to reminisce about just how boring my tween tastes were.
But I was still captivated. Jo’s struggles with being an oddball who likes writing, Meg’s first stabs at independence, Amy’s doubts over her creativity — all pulled me right back in as vividly as ever. And when Beth first got sick with The Fever and then recovered? Tears, I tell you. Tears.
With 15 years of distance, I can now quantify a little bit of the magic. Louisa May Alcott only hits the big moments in their lives. Every chapter is on the cusp of a crisis or change. She spends a lot of time on characters, and slips in new details about them in passing, as though these people were pre-formed and now’s just the right time to tell us about Jo’s pride in her sewing abilities. Everyone is flawed, in their own ways, and collectively — the sisters drift towards laziness, bad tempers, self-centeredness (though Beth only drifts the tiniest smidge, when she spends too much time playing with her cats). They learn lessons at every turn. Sometimes heavy-handed lessons, but we see them grow. Their inner monologues intermingle with the narrator’s voice at times, in a version of free indirect style, so that their thoughts are seamlessly delivered when necessary.
My copy of this book is hardcover, a huge book only slightly lighter than a dictionary. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it on the plane. I could leave it on the shelf. I could pick it up again next year. But Meg just got married and she’s about to have her babies, and Laurie’s going to ask Jo to marry him, and Beth is looking pale again … I shoved it in my carry-on and took it back to Chicago.