On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women, four acclaimed authors offer personal reflections on their lifelong engagement with Louisa May Alcott's classic novel of girlhood and growing up, each choosing a character for an essay.
Reading the 19th-century novel through a contemporary lens, writers Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley have...produced essays that are fresh, layered and insightful ... Jenny Zhang is tasked with analyzing the ever-popular Jo. She disliked Jo when reading Little Women as a girl, under-identifying with her then, and over-identifies with her now, making for an interesting essay that sags a little under her reactivity. With that one misstep, the March sisters march on in this stimulating, discerning and engaging book.
These three essays zig and zag, often folding in on themselves. One can sympathize with the task set before Ms. Bolick and Ms. Machado: Meg and Beth, the least dynamic of the sisters, offer little scope for analysis. Ms. Bolick’s 'solution' is to quote Virginia Woolf and tell an extended not-quite-relevant story about an unpleasant boss and an undependable male friend. Ms. Machado’s workaround, meanwhile, is to change the subject to Jo as frequently as possible. Ms. Zhang, who has the official Jo assignment, careers between postmodern chin-wagging and tut-tut judging of 19th-century mores through a 21st-century prism ... The essay that anchors this slim book, Jane Smiley’s fresh, sharp take on the much-maligned Amy, is a tonic—and a revelation.
...[a] thoughtful, acute collection of essays ... In tracing the natures of the four March sisters against their own lives and judgments, Bolick, Zhang, Machado, and Smiley all consider the utility of archetype writing and, in doing so, unearth complicated truths about the evolution of their own female identities ... One of the beautiful things about March Sisters is that it’s all very relational. By nature of there being four subjects and four authors, there is no single, definitive model — of femininity, of feminism — to measure against. The worlds of Little Women and March Sisters and the authors’ lives are all reconstructed to exist on the same boundary-less continuum ... thanks to the writers’ deep and disciplined investigations, the March sisters aren’t so blunt, after all. It’s our perfunctory readings, or the media’s repackaging of the story, or pop culture’s relentless editing-out of nuance that has cast the women as so one-dimensional. In fact, as Bolick, Zhang, Machado, and Smiley ultimately find, the girls present complicated and therefore more true portrayals of the stubborn difficulties of being a woman.