Friday, May 18, 2012

Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan

Taking a brief hiatus from the Lord Peter series, I just read Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan. This fictionalized account of Alcott's life covers the year the Alcott family lived at Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott's attempt at a utopian society. The book is in diary format, alternating between Louy's "public" and "private" journals (as imagined by Whelan, of course). These document the struggles of a loving and high-spirited girl who longs to be a good and obedient daughter, but finds herself a long way from perfection. She's surrounded by an interesting cast of characters -- her loving mother, of course, and high-minded father, as well as her perfect older sister Anna, sympathetic younger sister Lizzie, and toddler Abby May. Joining them at Fruitlands are Mr. Lane, a stern Englishman, and his son William, along with a motley cast of characters who are also seeking perfection. (Unfortunately, these secondary characters are more sketches than fully developed characters.) The quest ends unhappily, as the year's harvest proves insufficient to see them through the winter, and the individuals end up going their separate ways.

This book is not one of Whelan's better efforts. Perhaps the difficulty is in portraying so well-known a figure as Alcott faithfully, or perhaps it's the bittersweet ending of the book, but for me, the story fell flat. It was a quick read, but felt a bit repetitive -- Louy does something seemingly harmless / speaks without thinking / is a tiny bit rebellious, father scolds her, she cries and apologizes. Moreover, I think it is difficult to find the right audience for this book. Readers too young for Little Women are unlikely to be interested in the lives of the Alcott family, though some readers who enjoy books like the "Dear America" series might read it for the diary format and historical context. Older readers who are interested in Alcott's life will probably seek information among the plethora of Alcott biographies, where they can get more concrete information about Bronson Alcott's Transcendental philosophies and utopian dreams. This book is pleasant (though not particularly exciting) to read, but it neither presents a great deal of information about Alcott nor engages the reader with strong plotting and characterization.

(Reviewed from a  copy borrowed through my library system.)

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