Readers across generations have laughed and cried with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women. And there has never been a more beloved heroine in the history of American letters than Jo March, Louisa’s alter ego and an iconic figure of independent spirit and big dreams. But as Louisa knew all too well, big dreams often come at a cost.
In her debut novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O’Connor McNees deftly mixes fact and fiction as she imagines a summer lost to history, carefully purged from Louisa’s letters and journals, a summer that would change the course of Louisa’s writing career—and inspire the story of love and heartbreak between Jo and Laurie, Jo’s kindred spirit.
In the summer of 1855, Walt Whitman’s controversial Leaves of Grass has just been released, and the notion of making a living as a writer is still a far-off dream for Louisa. She is twenty-two years old, vivacious, and bursting with a desire to be free of her family and societal constraints so she can do what she loves the most—write. The Alcott family, destitute as usual, moves to a generous uncle’s empty house in Walpole, New Hampshire, for the summer. Here, a striking but pensive Louisa meets the fictional Joseph Singer. Louisa is initially unimpressed by Joseph’s charms. But just as she begins to open her heart, she discovers that Joseph may not be free to give his away. Their newfound love carries a steep price, and Louisa fears she may pay with the independence she has fought so hard to protect.
Because Little Women borrows stories from Louisa’s own childhood, the real-life Alcott sisters depicted in The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott will feel like familiar old friends. But readers will learn how the Alcotts’ real life differed from the fictional March family. While Transcendentalist friends like Thoreau and Emerson were fixtures of Louisa’s youth, Bronson Alcott’s philosophical pursuits left the family finances in shambles. Unlike the wise and placid “Marmee,” Louisa’s mother, Abba, was often depressed and overwhelmed by poverty and disappointment.
The historical facts throughout Kelly O’Connor McNees’s debut will be a delicacy to Alcott fans, but first and foremost, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a universal story of love and how it changes us in ways we could never imagine.
“I have read Little Women at least a dozen times, but Kelly O’Connor McNees has given me a gift I will not soon forget. Louisa May Alcott is no longer simply an icon to me but a real woman in all her complexity, one who lived life in spite of exploitation and the expectations of her day, never giving up on her dream. Her story is as relevant today as when Alcott bravely made her way. I can’t wait to give copies of this novel to all of my friends.”
—Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife and The Same Sweet Girls
“Mixing fact drawn from Little Women author Louisa May Alcott’s letters and journals with a longing to understand how Alcott—who is thought never to have been in love—could have written so movingly about it, Kelly O’Connor McNees delivers a wonderfully imagined, lively novel of first love herself. Louisa emerges as a spunky, honest heroine torn between her own personal love affair and the need to create more enduring stories that might console readers and lovers for generations to come. “
—Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters
"A superb, thoughtful, and deliciously paced book that will hook lovers of history and Alcott alike. I enjoyed it tremendously."
—Terry Gamble, author of The Water Dancers and Good Family
“Richly imagined and gracefully told, McNees’ captivating story will delight anyone who loved Alcott’s feisty heroine Jo March.”
— Judith Ryan Hendricks, best-selling author of Bread Alone
- Have you ever read a poem or book that profoundly challenged or changed your worldview? How might the events of the novel have differed if Walt Whitman had not published Leaves of Grass in the summer of 1855?
- What is Louisa’s relationship like with each of her sisters? Do any of these relationships change throughout the novel? If so, how? Do you think Louisa’s identity was defined by her sisters?
- Abba says that men and women experience love differently: “For a man, love is just a season. For a woman it is the whole of the year.” Is that true in The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott? Is it true in your own personal experience?
- Bronson Alcott was a truly unusual father and man. What is your impression of him? How do you think he affected his daughters, and did he affect each one differently?
- Describe Bronson and Abba’s marriage. Do you think it influenced Louisa’s view of matrimony? If so, in what way?
- Was Louisa right not to go with Joseph Singer to New York? Why or why not? What would you have done?
- Why was Louisa so protective of her independence? Considering the greater opportunities available to women now, but also the frenetic pace of their lives and, in some ways, more complex obligations, do you think she would be as protective of her independence if she lived today?
- At one point Abba tells Louisa, “We must never give if we are hoping for something in return.” Why does she say that? Do you think what she says is true?
- At the end of the novel we learn that Louisa is taking care of her niece Lulu. What kind of parent do you think Louisa would be, and why?
- Louisa tells Joseph, “My life is no longer my own.” And yet she chose to base Little Women, her most successful novel, on herself and her sisters. If writers use their own experiences as inspiration, are they inviting fans to pry into their personal lives? Or should their work be taken at face value?