BOOK REVIEW | winter 2003
The Little Women
By Katherine Weber
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Three strong-willed, upper-middle-class Manhattan sisters form the core of Katharine Weber’s The Little Women, a narrative inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale. Meg Green, the oldest at 20, attends Yale University and takes a motherly attitude toward her younger sisters. Joanna, 17, is the book’s tomboyish, possibly lesbian narrator, and Amy, 15, who’s been shielded from life’s harshness by her family’s affluence, follows her sisters as a sweet tagalong. (Beth, the one Alcott-inspired girl not represented, readers soon learn, had been the family’s pet turtle.)
Middle child Joanna is scribe of the “autobiographical novel” that constitutes the bulk of Weber’s tale. The Green family, Joanna informs us in florid prose, is special, a nearly perfect household in which respect for others and scintillating conversation abound, a place where art and language play vital roles. (Family members often speak to each other in quotes from Shakespeare, Emerson and Wallace Stegner.) Their apartment “was one of those places that felt more right than any place you had ever been,” Joanna tells us. “Spending time with the Green family made people simultaneously content and filled with longing.”
This façade is smashed when Janet, the girls’ English professor mother, is found to have had an affair with one of her graduate students. If that weren’t enough to shake the young ladies to their bones, their father’s nonchalance in the face of his wife’s now-past adultery is. Flummoxed by their parents’ lack of moral backbone, the younger sisters pack up and leave their plush Manhattan life, moving in with Meg in the Yale apartment she shares (chastely) with roommate Teddy Bell.
If the plot sounds syrupy, it is, which raises questions about the author’s intent. Weber, whose previous work includes The Music Lesson and Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, is clearly after more than a recapitulation of Alcott’s tale as told by a precocious 17-year-old. But what more, exactly?
There’s a hint in the book’s postmodern structure: Running counterpoint to the Joanna-narrated novel are italicized comments from Amy and Meg, who detail where Joanna has misrepresented the facts or revealed intimate secrets. Joanna’s retorts are included as she asserts the rights of the fiction writer to manipulate facts in service to her story.
These asides, while adding a metafictional dimension to the act of novel writing, end up as a fatiguing debate—alas, not enough to save Joanna’s tale from the swamp of earnestness in which it bogs down.
There’s also a serious disconnect between the anachronous tone of the text and the modern-day dilemmas it depicts. Throughout, Joanna’s narrative voice remains doggedly highbrow: “It was, in a way, Teddy realized (having at this moment one of those tiny ridiculous epiphanies one can have when reading a profound work of literature while simultaneously addressing a surprising parallel matter in one’s own life), another form of blindness and another paradise lost,” she writes. Yet this veneer is intermittently shattered by contemporary scenes and phrases, as when the mother’s paramour addresses her as his “little fuckbird.”
One moment, the tale seems an act of homage, only to morph into parody a few lines later, while the lessons on fictional deconstruction add another, muddying layer.
When Michael Cunningham wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning homage to Virginia Woolf, The Hours, his purpose was clear: to use gorgeous Woolf-like prose in order to illuminate Woolf’s inner life, while bringing her novel Mrs. Dalloway into contemporary terms. Weber’s The Little Women seems uncertain of its purpose and thus founders, resulting in a narrative whole inferior to the sum of its parts.