A mix of history and imagination, this debut novel focuses on May Alcott, the model for Amy in Little Women and youngest sister of the book’s widely chronicled author, Louisa May Alcott.
The story begins with the 1868 publication of Little Women, which fictionalized the lives of all four Alcott sisters. Louisa is on her way to literary superstardom; a driven, prolific writer, she will become the breadwinner for her impoverished New England family. May longs to be taken seriously as an artist. But the press has sharply criticized her illustrations for her sister's book. Louisa, meanwhile, sees May as a high-spirited dilettante, dedicated to having fun. Determined to prove Louisa wrong, May dodges a serious suitor and signs up for rigorous art classes, first in Boston, then in Europe, where she mingles with other artists (some real, like Mary Cassatt, others fictional or composites). Slowly, her skill and confidence grow. Louisa, despite her trepidations, has partly subsidized May’s European studies, but she eventually demands May come home to help care for their ailing mother. May refuses. She continues painting and marries a much-younger man after a brief courtship. Reconciliation with her sister proves elusive. There are echoes of Little Women throughout and themes that will resonate with contemporary readers. May struggles fiercely with the competing demands of family and work (Louisa, for her part, never marries). There’s also the push-pull of making money versus making art: Louisa believes Little Women and its profitable sequels are beneath her, and she publishes more provocative work under a pen name. May finds early success making copies of Turner paintings but must drive herself to develop her own style.
Hooper is especially good at depicting the complicated blend of devotion and jealousy so common among siblings. Some clumsy exposition aside, this is a lively, entertaining read.