British-born Donnelly’s first novel, payback for all the Americans rewriting Jane Austen, concerns a present-day London family with three sisters descended from and living adventures parallel to the eponymous Alcott heroines.
As Lulu Atwater reads a stash of Jo March’s (disappointingly dull) letters she’s discovered in her mother’s attic, the parallels Donnelly makes between the Atwater and March families are not subtle. Instead of Marmee as mother, there’s warm and loving Fee, a family therapist originally from Boston and the great-great granddaughter of Jo Bhaer (nee March). Fee’s husband David, who publishes travel books, is a genial but frequently absent father. Like Meg March, responsible oldest daughter Emma is engaged to a nice young man, and like Amy March, effervescent youngest daughter Sophie, an aspiring actress, is slightly spoiled but ultimately lovable. Lulu, the brainy middle daughter, is unsettled, unpredictable and outspoken. With no dying fourth sister—although Sophie has a bout of food poisoning—and no serious financial strain (or even awareness of a civil war being fought, say in Afghanistan), the Atwater family adventures lack the gravitas of the Marches’. Offered a great professional opportunity in North Dakota, Emma’s fiancé sensitively lets her decide whether the benefit to his career is worth leaving London and her career; despite the Atwaters’ half-baked avowals of feminism, she decides it is. When Sophie stands up to snobby Bostonian Aunt Amy and her prejudice against Irish Catholics (as exotic as this novel gets), Aunt Amy likes her spunk and introduces her to an important theatrical producer. Fee and David hit a rocky spot in their marriage but quickly act to rekindle their romance. No Jo March, Lulu finally discovers her passions: for cooking as a career and for a hunky true love. Plenty of sitcom-ready moments occur, like Sophie accidentally brushing her teeth with hair conditioner and Emma buying shoes she can’t afford.
The Atwaters are amiable in small doses, but Alcott fans will find this chick lit's superficial relationship to the sneakily subversive Little Women insulting.