Book Review: The Courtship of Jo March

Title: The Courtship of Jo March: A Variation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction, Fanfiction

Book Description from Goodreads: Set in the early 1870s, this re-imagining of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is for all who have ever wondered how things might have worked out differently for the beloved March sisters – the life Beth might have led, the books Jo might have written, the friends they might have made, and the courtship that might have been…

Authoress Jo March has lost her elder sister Meg to matrimony. When the aristocratic Vaughns – elegant Kate, boisterous Fred, thoughtful Frank, and feisty Grace – re-enter their lives, it seems her younger sisters Beth and Amy, and even her closest friend Laurie, might soon follow suit.

Yet despite the efforts of her great-aunt March, Jo is determined not to give up her liberty for any mortal man. Besides, she’s occupied with saving to travel abroad, securing music lessons for Beth, and befriending aspirant journalist Tommy Chamberlain.

The Marches’ neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was born with looks, talent, and wealth – and Jo is convinced he has a promising future in which she has no part. He is as stubborn as Jo, and has loved her for as long as anyone can remember. But what will win a woman who won’t marry for love or money?

Book Review: I read an earlier version of this story on the author’s blog, so when I heard it was getting expanded and revised, I eagerly looked forward to the new edition. Like any author’s attempt to write with the pen of another, the book has its challenges, but overall it was quite enjoyable. So here’s a closer look (please keep in mind that I’ve read almost all of Alcott’s novels, so I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer, though I do have some quibbles about how she handled Little Women, as noted in the articles “When An Author Gets It Wrong” and “The Good Wives Recipe To Marrying Off the Wrong Couples”).

Narration: 3 out of 5. This is where the story is least like Louisa May Alcott’s. The feel is off, primarily because Alcott’s story had a clear and distinct narrator who not only showed us things but also told us a great deal about how the characters were feeling, why they were feelings such things, and whether their feelings were or weren’t justified and reasonable. Modern readers may prefer the new narration, as it’s more like third person close than third person omniscient, but I missed the continuity and storytelling flavor that the narrator brought. There were a few moments where it felt similar, but for the most part, the story was too immediate to have a 19th century feeling for me.

Content: 4 out of 5. The overall content of the story was delightful. This is Jo’s story, and thus, there are a great many conversations between Jo and Teddy, Jo and Beth, Jo and her mother, with original bits of dialogue and wording woven in. And we get to see Teddy’s side of things, exploring how he feels and why he does the things he does.

Unlike Little Women, though, there weren’t a great many episodes included just to show what the characters were like and how they lived. There were no scenes of preparing for a mother’s return, of discussing birthday gifts or sewing their way through the continents, of packing for a party, or discussing the girl’s hobbies (though most of this has more to do with a lack of narrator than anything else). Every scene in this novel had something to do with the plot, which, again, may appeal to modern readers but felt rushed to me.

Also, this is the Happiest Ever After version of this story, and some of the Happilies seemed a bit too convenient and rushed for my taste. It reminded me of the line from Shakespeare where “Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill; The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.”

Characters: 4 out of 5. This is where the book shines. Trix Wilkins nailed the main characters, with the exception of a few scenes here and there, and it really feels like we are watching Jo and Teddy interact. Beth was also excellent, and having always been a fan of hers, I quite enjoyed getting to see her live and love. I also enjoyed getting to read more of Mr. Laurence’s interactions with Teddy from Teddy’s point of view. Amy was harder for me to believe, and Fred more like the man from the first book than the second (though I suspect we’re to blot all recollection of Good Wives from our minds). For the most part, though, this book is for fans of Jo and Teddy, and it delivers in that department beautifully (even though I did like some of the deleted scenes when it came to the ending more than the one that made it into the “book proper”).

Artwork: Subjective. Aside from issues of capitalization, I liked the title and cover very much. The soft, curved lines and antique sepia color really fit the story, and it is a bit symbolic of a story that gives us Jo, not as she was, but as we wished she might’ve been.

World-Building: 3 out of 5. Writing in another time is always harder than writing a contemporary novel, and Wilkins thus faced many more difficulties than Alcott in this department. The one wrote what she lived and knew intimately, while the other would’ve had to research the time, and Wilkins notes that this “is in part an alternate real-time history regarding ideas and attitudes towards women and business practices…” Thus, some aspects do not feel necessarily all that historically accurate, and I was braced for that going into it.

However, some of the content just didn’t make sense. I understand that she moved the story forward by a number of years, but even in the 1870s, a woman didn’t dance all night with any young man. Young men didn’t escort young women anywhere unless they were related or married, as that was primarily a chaperone’s role (though of course young men could and did offer to tag along), and Aunt March of all people would’ve known this. At most, I’d have expected her to require Teddy to dance twice with Jo, take her in to supper and get her her refreshments, as was within the bounds of propriety, and nothing more.

And I can’t imagine how he’d get Jo so many dresses. This is long before the off-the-rack gowns, and for a man to know the measurements of a woman he wasn’t married too would be scandalous. Some of the references (like Teddy giving Jo paperclips and then calling them pins, when in fact they were invented to replace pins in holding papers together) seemed off and out of joint.

And finally, Kate’s attitude towards slavery and marriage made no sense for a British woman of her time. Slavery had been outlawed in Great Britain for decades at this point, so she could easily claim the upper hand over Jo there, and even if she supported servants being kept in their places and the idea of nobility, that wouldn’t have necessarily extended to believing that slaves should remain in slavery. It seemed odd, as did her desire to find a man who matched her talents, as though a musical man was to be preferred to one who had a brilliant career in parliament or business. Kate seems like a woman who would want to keep up her station in life and that her choice in marriage would be far more calculating and businesslike than based on a desire to share in musical accomplishments.

Overall Response: 14 out of 20, or 3.5 overall. Despite the detractions, the story was a grand “romp,” as Jo herself might’ve said, and I enjoyed it. For ardent fans of Alcott, this might not be a perfect read, but it’s a fun story with solid characters, even if the world-building was a little unbelievable, and those who have never read Little Women will certainly enjoy this as a romance in its own right.

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Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Cover image by Greg Bridges, http://www.gregbridges.com; used by permission from the author

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