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Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott…

Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott

by Jeannine Atkins

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What a nice surprise this book about Abigail ‘May’ Alcott turned out to be. She was the one portrayed as ‘Amy’ in Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women, the youngest sister who gave up her dream of becoming an artist when she married the boy next door. I was glad to learn that part was pure fiction. So, how was her life different? Sorry, no spoilers. I will say her life and the art world she moved in were interesting enough that I’ve put The Other Alcott, another biographical novel about her, on my TBR list. Hope it’s as good as this one ( )
  wandaly | Aug 13, 2017 |
Little Woman in Blue is perhaps closer to 3.75 stars rather than 4, but I rounded up. The reason why I don't really consider it a full 4 is that dialogue between characters often felt formal and educational even by the standards of the mid-19th century of which it takes place. It's as if the author was trying to educate the readers with dialogue on top of events in this historical-fiction novel.

That quirk aside, I found this a thought-provoking read on how women such as May Alcott (later Nieriker), sister of Louisa May Alcott, struggled in pursuing artistic careers in a time when the woman's role was expected to be that of a good daughter, good sibling (for instance, May was made to feel guilty when her oldest sister Anna claimed she needed May to help her with caring for Anna's babies), good wife, just a good woman over all.

Additionally, because women were not encouraged to pursue art, educational opportunities were slim and even then generally not equal to men (for instance, women were not allowed to sketch from fully nude models in art schools, which hindered accuracy in representing the body in art). May went to Europe in hopes of getting a better art education but still was frustrated in this attempt. Even so, she managed to win some prestigious art awards.

Sadly, May Alcott Nieriker died relatively young (39 years old), not long after the birth of her daughter, and after being married for about a year to a man who was apparently fine with her artistic pursuits. If May had lived longer, maybe she would have gotten to the point where she would be in the same mention of other women artists from that time, such as her friend Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morisot. As it is, she is largely forgotten today other than being the sister of the more famous Louisa May Alcott.

It is good that the author chose to call attention to May Alcott by writing this novel. ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Jan 28, 2017 |
We are enormous Louisa May Alcott fans in my house -- so much so, my son's middle name is Alcott!

When I saw mention of this book, a novel about Louisa's sister Abigail May (or Amy in Little Women), I was consumed with need for it. I knew a little of May from our visits to Orchard House, and my wife and I tripped over an exhibit of May's art at the Concord Public Library by accident some years ago. But I never thought more about her; I just assumed the girl portrayed by Louisa was more or less that vain and silly.

Yeah, I'm the silly one.

I inhaled this novel in a matter of days. The May portrayed here is an ambitious young woman who wants more than her family expects; and worse, she's made to feel bad for wanting it all -- a husband, a family, an artistic career, money, a home. Teaching art to young women who do it out of obligation, May yearns to go to Europe to learn from the masters. Conservative New England mores combined with her family's poverty means she struggles for access to materials, classes, and inspiration yet the fierce hunger we see in Louisa's Jo (from Little Women) is just as urgent in May.

Atkins reveals a less appealing side to Louisa May Alcott, but she offers it with such respect for the Alcott family that I appreciated her unvarnished story. In Atkins' hands, Louisa's determination comes off callous and brusque, cruel even, and suddenly the bratty Amy I had written off most of my life seemed less selfish and more sympathetic.

In fact, May's life is rife with tragedy and full of unexpected encounters with the luminaries of her time. She makes it to Europe where, for a while, she has professional praise, income, and even love. For those unfamiliar with how her life proceeds, I'll not say more, but it reads like the best kind of novel, and I heaved a big, teary sigh at the end.

Atkins' writing style is lovely, mixing wonderfully evocative details with brisk dialogue, and I don't think one need be familiar with the Alcotts or the world of mid-19th century Concord to enjoy this story. It's a kind of coming-of-age story, an exploration of the obligations of family and the wishes of personal fulfillment. As a new mother trying to work on my novel, I appreciated the tension the Alcott women faced, from angry Marmee to impatient May, in trying to balance family life with vocation.

Fascinating and delightful, this is a marvelous novel for those who enjoy biographical fiction that focuses on figures less well-known. And of course, any fan of Little Women will want this one -- it'll invite a rereading of that classic with a new eye! ( )
  unabridgedchick | Nov 4, 2015 |
I grew up reading Little Women, so when I got the chance to read about its creator through the eyes of her younger sister, May. May is an aspiring artist who also wants a husband and family. Louisa sees herself as too old to get married and would rather help where she can and focus on her writing. The two sisters end up clashing over many things, however they keep their sisterly bond. Through war, travel, successes and failures a portrait of two sisters is artfully drawn.

I loved learning about the sisters and their real lives. I really enjoyed learning about May and Louisa’s relationship with each other and how that translated into Louisa’s character of Amy in Little Women. Even though Amy is portrayed as very self-involved in Little Women, she is drawn in a new light, a struggling artist herself who had the limelight stolen from her by Louisa’s success. Most of all, I enjoyed the realistic portrait of two influential and forward-thinking women of their time. It was really interesting to find out all of the other influential people that the Alcott’s knew including Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson.

This book was received for free in return for an honest review. ( )
  Mishker | Sep 30, 2015 |
Like just about every other young bookish girl, I read Little Women growing up. In fact, I read Little Men and Jo's Boys as well. And like the majority who read it, I desperately wanted to grow up and be Jo March. She was the be all and end all of heroines. (Well, I'm still disappointed that she didn't marry Laurie but I suppose I might eventually get over it.) I never gave much thought to little Amy, the family pet who came across as a little bit of a spoiled, vain, flibberty gibbet. So I was completely intrigued to find that Amy was modeled to some extent on Louisa May Alcott's youngest sister, May. What was even more surprising was the way in which May was so much more interesting than the paragon of motherhood that Amy grew up to be. Jeannine Atkins' new novel, Little Woman in Blue, fictionalizes May's life, bringing to light her accomplishments, her humanness, and her desires, bringing an oft overlooked, yet talented in her own right, Alcott into the light.

May Alcott found her passion for painting at the age of ten. But she was born into a world that made it very difficult for women to be artists, expecting them to give up their artistic passion and ambitions to marry and raise a family, a world that often believed that women were incapable of being artists of the same caliber as men. May was determined to prove the world wrong. Even as she helped her mother tend to their home, to cook, clean, and sew, she needed creative time too, time spent with her paintbrush in hand, capturing what she saw before her. As the younger sister of Louisa May Alcott, she wrestles with the desire to be good and helpful but to also achieve the success, acclaim, and professional respect that her older sister has found. Her relationship with her sister is a complicated one tinged with both respect and envy and once May sees how Louisa has portrayed her in the character of Amy in the famous Little Women, she is even more determined to live life on her own terms.

Atkins has taken what is known about May Alcott and expanded on it, giving voice to a vibrant, intelligent, and determined woman. She details the myriad of stumbling blocks May faced and the ways she did eventually find and fulfill her desires. May is very definitely a woman of her time and she is torn between what she wants and what society expects of her. Her passion for her art drives her and shines through the narrative, making the life she chooses and which ultimately takes her so very far from home and family the only choice that she can make. Many famous characters in the arts and literary worlds cross May's path through the course of the book, some pointing to the budding promise of positive change for women and others still hidebound in their attitudes and each of these characters has an impact on May. May as a character is by turns confident and uncertain. She knows what she wants, both art and a family, but she doesn't know how to find and maintain both, having to forge her own way if she does intend to have them. Her doubts and insecurities make her real, her desire for her sister's support and pride in her makes her human. Atkins has drawn a fascinating, artistically talented young woman emerging first from the shadow of her family's impoverished situation and then from the long shadow cast by a beloved sister, struggling for recognition and respect in her own right. Fans of Little Women will certainly enjoy this imagined look at the woman who was much more complex than little Amy March. ( )
  whitreidtan | Sep 22, 2015 |
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May Alcott spends her days sewing blue shirts for Union soldiers, but she dreams of painting a masterpiece -- which many say is impossible for a woman -- and of finding love, too. When she reads her sister's wildly popular novel, Little Women, she is stung by Louisa's portrayal of her as "Amy," the youngest of four sisters who trades her desire to succeed as an artist for the joys of hearth and home. Determined to prove her talent, May makes plans to move far from Massachusetts and make a life for herself with room for both watercolors and a wedding dress. Can she succeed? And if she does, what price will she have to pay? Based on May Alcott's letters and diaries, as well as memoirs written by her neighbors, Little Woman in Blue puts May at the center of the story she might have told about sisterhood and rivalry in an extraordinary family.… (more)

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