If you’ve read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, you no doubt remember Jo Marsh’s coddled, self-indulgent little sister, Amy, who trades away her artistic dreams for the promises of marriage. Little Woman in Blue is a refrain of Amy’s story, but with a twist: Author Jeannine Atkins calls Louisa’s character by her real name—Abigail “May” Alcott—and tells her story true.
In the 19th century, most female artists eventually exchanged their professional ambitions for marriage proposals, and then plowed their creative urges into homemaking tasks and raising children. But while May Alcott has a frothy side (which no doubt irks her older sister), she is a headstrong woman with loftier goals: Artist. Wife. Mother. Wealth and professional acclaim, when her every wish is granted. In lively passages, Jeannine Atkins describes the myriad obstacles that May encounters on this “road less traveled.”
Over time, May’s persistence begins to pay off. She earns the begrudging respect of her older sister, fattens her art portfolio, and is ultimately granted exhibition rights at the esteemed Salon in Paris, where her paintings are displayed alongside some of the most famous artists of her day. Her dreams of marriage and family are eventually realized, when she married Ernest Nieriker and gives birth to a baby girl. There’s more to the story, of course, but you’ll find no spoilers here.
In this authentic, if fictionalized, biography, Jeannine Atkins breathes new life into one of America’s favorite literary classics. Alcott aficionados will find much to love between its covers, as will readers for whom this is a first introduction to the sisters in Little Women. Rich imagery. Relatable characters. Settings that are true to an era, and a story that celebrates May Alcott’s life, aptly published during the 175th anniversary of her birth year.
Within the first few pages, I became friends with “the little woman in blue.” I embraced her faults and virtues, railed against her torments, and celebrated her brave, if sometimes misguided, efforts to strike a balance between her artistic and personal ambitions. Though I was sorry to reach the end, I will remember May’s story, always.
This review is based on an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of Little Woman In Blue (SheWrites, September 2015), provided to me by the author. I was awestruck when I read one of Jeannine Atkins’ earlier books, Borrowed Names, and I’m a big fan of her subsequent works. Though we live on opposite coasts, our shared sensibilities have sparked an enduring friendship. Even so, I’ve done my level best to write an unbiased review of this book, in hopes that May Alcott’s story will reach—will touch—a broader audience of readers.