Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Book Review & Author Interview: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly.

Product details:
Publisher: Penguin.
Release date: May 26th 2011.
Paperback, 448 pages.
Rating: 2½ out of 5.
Ages: Adult
Source: Received from publisher for review.

The Atwaters are a loving, sprawling mess of a family and Fee’s three daughters, Emma, Lulu and Sophie couldn’t be less alike if they tried. Emma is planning her wedding, Sophie is an up-and-coming actress, but Lulu – the cleverest of them all – is more than a little lost. If life is for living, why is she stuck in a series of dead-end jobs?

Grandma Jo’s letters had been gathering dust in the attic for decades, but when Lulu gets her hands on them, everything seems to change and different worlds begin to open up. And even though dark family secrets emerge, Jo’s words offer comfort and guidance across the centuries. 

Sometimes family is all that matters. And sisters are the closest friends you can find.


This modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, will surely appeal to fans of the original, but for me, a casual reader of the original classic at best, it failed to hit the mark.

Meet the Atwater’s, a London based family, who are imagined descendants of Alcott’s March heroines. Emma, Lulu and Sophie are three sisters with three very different personalities and a feisty American mother who keeps them all in check.  Emma, conventional and sensible is planning her wedding to the dependable Matthew, Lulu, the opposite of Emma, is outspoken and unsettled, and then there’s Sophie, who fancies herself as an actress, and who everybody just adores.  Fans of Little Women will note the comparisons to Meg, Jo and Amy March respectively, and the book is heart-warming in places if a little slow-moving as it dwells on family ties and sisterly bonds. 

Jo March’s letters are discovered by her great-great-granddaughter, Lulu, and provide the girl with some much needed direction and life-lessons throughout the book.  While the letters themselves are well-researched and have a distinctive voice, I’m afraid I found them to be rather long-winded and disruptive to the flow of the book at times.  As for the Atwater sisters, I was hoping they’d grow on me, but I’m afraid Emma, boring and middle-aged before her time, Lulu, downright sullen and argumentative and Sophie, spoiled and ditzy did not endear themselves to me.  The constant bickering between the sisters, although not in any way malicious, grated on me after a time.

A quaint read with an interesting premise, this will appeal to fans of the original who will enjoy Jo March’s musings on love and life and how they inspire and comfort her descendants as they make their way through the trials and tribulations of life.


Interview with Gabrielle Donnelly author of The Little Women Letters:

The Little Women Letters centers around three sisters, Emma, Lulu and Sophie who are descendants of the popular heroine of Little Women, Jo March.  What inspired you to write this story and to focus on Jo's descendants?

A wonderfully creative and imaginative editor called Lydia Newhouse who at the time worked for Michael Joseph had the original idea for wondering what would happen if Jo March's modern great-great-granddaughter were to find a cache of her ancestor's letters.  She then auditioned various writers to come up with a first chapter, and was kind enough to choose mine, which was more or less as you will read it in the book.  I was more delighted than I can say when I learned I'd got the gig, because what nicer assignment can anyone imagine than to be required to read Little Women over and over again?  I was in New York on business when I heard the news and I remember leaving my hotel and just skipping down Park Avenue for joy.  Which was not a pretty sight in a middle-aged woman.

Fans of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women will have read that the author based the character of Jo on herself.  Which of your characters in The Little Women Letters most resembles you?

I'm so much like Jo it's almost ridiculous.  I'm tactless, untidy, hopeless with possessions, hot-tempered, book-loving, and even fond of apples.  And, like Jo, when I was a girl I yearned to be a boy.  Younger women now find this odd but up until only two or three decades ago, it was actually quite common.  Until very recently life for a girl was impossibly narrow.  You were expected to be mild-mannered, conventional, tidy, and domestic - if you had a brain you were warned to hide it, and if you felt prompted to crack a joke you were supposed to sit very still until the urge had passed because joking was for boys.  It was very hard for a lot of us to cram our little square (or hexagonal or octagonal) personalities into the little round holes that society had provided and watch the boys have all the fun.  Life has changed immensely for young women now and it's extraordinarily gratifying for my generation - that of the infamous Seventies feminists - to see what a difference we've made.  In The Little Women Letters I've made the girls' mother, Fee, a hard core feminist and slightly poke fun at her for it.  But in real life I'm as proud as all get-out of what my generation of women has achieved.

The Little Women Letters features a collection of letters written by Jo March.  What research did you do  in relation to writing letters from Jo's point of view?

I immersed myself in the novels of Louisa May Alcott - not only Little Women, but others, like Eight Cousins, Rose In Bloom, and Work - and gradually built up a rough picture of what day-to-day life would be like for young women of the March sisters' time and place.  It helped a great deal that there's a richness of domestic detail in all of the novels - for all of Louisa's claims that Jo lived in her head, the real Louisa had a very keen eye indeed for her everyday surroundings.  If I needed some more specific detail for a particular incident, I went to the Internet and read up about it, which was always interesting - at one point I had Amy come down with a cold and spent a fascinating day researching likely home remedies.  I was also quite conscious of maintaining Jo's very distinctive voice - like Louisa, she had a habit of dropping the pronoun "I", loved slang, and unhesitatingly chose "ain't" and "don't" over "isn't" and "doesn't."  Because Little Women is set in the nineteenth century some people seem to think the March girls were endlessly genteel, which is very far from the case: they were plain-speaking New Englanders and proud of it.

 Little Women is a book that has stood the test of time and is loved by readers the world over. What do you think it is about the book that makes it have such an everlasting appeal for readers?

Oh, where do you start?  The fresh, alive characters - funny, flawed, and above all human - that are fully as recognisable today as they were a century and a half ago?  The description of the relationships between the sisters: the intimacy, the affection, the irritation - the occasional fury! - the unquestioning loyalty that underlies it all?  The comic scenes - salted strawberries, anyone? The lovely sense that runs through the book of firelight flickering, lamps burning, and confidences exchanged?  Then again, maybe it all comes down to Laurie -  show me a red-blooded girl who hasn't had at least a little bit of a crush on him ...

The Little Women Letters is on my list of books to read this summer. Can you tell me your all time favourite summer/beach reads and also let me know what you think makes the perfect summer read?

It's a fine balance, isn't it - you certainly don't want anything to tax a sun-addled brain, but on the other hand, you do want something with enough substance to grab your imagination.  I've read some page-turners lately - in particular Sister by Rosamund Lupton and Oxygen by Carol Cassella - but I'm not sure but that they're a bit too gripping for the beach.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett, while every bit as good as the other two, unfolds at a more relaxed pace so would be good, and is also set in the American South, so lots of sticky heat scenes to soak up the sun's rays.  And talking of the South, I recently re-read Gone With The Wind, which just gallops along, although the racial undertones are definitely hard to take these days and I do wish that Margaret Mitchell would give poor old Scarlett O'Hara a break - she's relentlessly critical of her and Scarlett is just trying to survive in some pretty tough situations.  So maybe we should go in a different direction, pull down Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City, recap the gossip of what Mary Ann and Mouse are getting up to, and fan ourselves off with some cool San Francisco breezes while we're about it. 

 Thanks to Gabrielle Donnelly for the interview. 
The Little Women Letters is available to buy now!


  1. Oh! How I want this book! This is definitely going on my TBR list. I loved Jo March so much . Little Women has to be one of my favourite books ever. The idea of using her modern day descendents is just fabulous.

  2. Great honest review and great interview. I agree the characters and their bond as sister is what made the original Little Women so loveable!

  3. I've been interested in this one since I first heard about it. After reading your review I'm not sure how much I'd like it. I was never a fan of Amy and these "modern" characters based on the originals probably would annoy me more. Maybe I will check it out from the library one day. The premise certainly is interesting. Thanks for sharing your review and the interview!

  4. I am sorry you didn't enjoy this one as much as you had hoped. I have a review copy and will probably read it soon. I love the classic, so hopefully I'll enjoy this modern interpretation. Thanks for sharing the great interview as well. I always love to hear authors' beach reads. :)

  5. Loved your honest review of the book and thoroughly enjoy your interview. I thought it was interesting that Donnelly auditioned to write this book. I also loved reading about her process.

  6. Thanks for the honest review. I loved Little Women, and I think this modern spin on it might appeal to me as well.

    I'm a new follower btw ;)

    I Heart Reading

  7. Such an interesting premise in making these 3 women descendants of Jo:) Too bad the characters aren't quite as strong as they could have been, I know the constant bickering would grate on me as well.

  8. I haven't read Little Women so I don't think I'll be reading this one.

    I enjoyed the author interview. It was interesting to read about what inspired her to write the book.

  9. I am sorry that you didn't enjoy the book more. Little Women is my favorite classic from childhood and that's the main reason why I really want to read this book. And thanks for the great interview!


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