A delightfully clever contemporary novel inspired by the Louisa May Alcott classic
In Katharine Weber's third novel, The Little Women, three adolescent sisters--Meg, Jo and Amy--are shocked when they discover their mother's affair, but are truly devastated by their father's apparently easy forgiveness of her. Shattered by their parents' failure to live up to the moral standards and values of the family, the two younger sisters leave New York (and their private school) and move to Meg's apartment in New Haven, where Meg is a junior at Yale. They enroll in the local inner-city public high school, and, divorced from their parents, they try to make a life with Meg as their surrogate mother.
Written in the form of an autobiographical novel by Joanna, the middle sister, the pages of The Little Women are punctuated by comments from the "real" Meg and Amy. Their notes and Jo's replies form a second narrative, as they argue about the "truth" of the novel.
Why do readers insist on searching for the autobiographical elements of fiction? When does a novelist go too far in mulching actual experience for a novel? What rights, if any, does a writer have to grant the people in her life and story?
An ingenious combination of classic storytelling in a contemporary mode, The Little Women confirms Katharine Weber's reputation as a writer who "astutely explores the gap between perception and reality." (The New York Times Book Review)
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Katharine Weber is the author of two previous novels: The Music Lesson and Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear. She teaches fiction writing at Yale University.
Katharine Weber is the author of the novels The Little Women (FSG, 2003), The Music Lesson, and Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Her paternal grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.
Read an Excerpt
The Little Women
By KATHARINE WEBER
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUXCopyright © 2003 Katharine Weber
All right reserved.
Joanna and Amy left home in the fall of their older sister Meg's junior year at Yale. Meg had already gone ahead to New Haven three days earlier in her car-the family's old green Subaru wagon, which had been her Warren Prep graduation present (along with a trip to France). There would have been no room for Joanna and Amy had they wanted to drive up with her. The car was crammed to capacity with boxes and duffel bags and computers, Amy's music stand (she played the flute), and also her art supplies, including the drafting table, the base of which took up an annoying amount of cargo space. Their three bicycles had been awkwardly tied onto the roof rack with the assistance of Mike the doorman, whose helpful intentions were as genuine as his knot-making skills were poor.
Meg had gone ahead, she said, because she needed those days to get started organizing the apartment, and also because of some confusion with her class schedule that required a meeting with her dean. Meg had driven away in the loaded old Subaru with a certain belief that she could not have survived being with her family for even one more hour. She never liked analyzing and speculating about emotions, her own or anyone else's. A very reluctant passer of judgments, Meg did on occasion discover that she was deeply disappointed by some person or turn of events. At such times she grieved horribly and felt burdened by the gravity of her conclusions.
Although she had a reputation, both within the family and among her friends, as a good listener, Meg really had no idea of what compelled people to confide in her as they did. Too much information about other people's feelings bothered her tremendously. What often struck people as wonderfully receptive and sympathetic listening on Meg's part was, in actuality, inadequately conveyed distress, which she endured only until sufficient evasive chat could diffuse an overly intimate atmosphere.
Joanna and Amy, on the other hand, at almost seventeen and just fifteen, always loved a good dissection. They relished their rages. This had always been true, and was not merely a consequence of their being a bit younger. These differences in temperament had long created a bond between the two younger Green sisters just as it caused some distance between them and Meg. From the days of earliest school-yard controversies, Joanna and Amy had believed with all their hearts in rehashings, begrudgeries, tattle-talings, and creative vengeance.
One particular Halloween, the school year had gotten off to a particularly rocky start for Amy and Joanna. Their parents, Janet and Lou, concerned about unattractively pugnacious inclinations, had hoped to make a point by creating a mock, and mocking, family crest for the two littlest Green sisters. Amy and Joanna, in third and fourth grade at the time, were then gripped by an extreme Arthurian legend obsession, and they were utterly thrilled with the fancy nature of the ironic emblem that adorned the cardboard shields they carried to accessorize their matching aluminum foil suits of armor.
Meg went that year as a Hershey's Kiss, a typically diplomatic solution that provided both a material link with her sisters' costumes-each of the three outfits required some six hundred feet of heavy-duty Reynolds aluminum foil-and a conceptual distance as an unassertive piece of chocolate.
The twin mock family crests-designed by Lou, executed by Janet with great care, and, regrettably, taken with happy oblivious literalness by Amy and Joanna-showed a multi-armed, sword-and-dagger-wielding griffin perched over a small green house, with the motto emblazoned in carefully lettered mock Olde English: "NEVER FORGIVE, NEVER FORGET." Joanna still had hers all these years later, tacked to her closet door.
It would not have been possible for Meg to nourish with her sisters' kind of devotion the terrible disappointment she now felt toward her parents. In the past few days, Amy and Joanna had become so savage that they could say anything and hurt anyone while seeming to enjoy it, while Meg had just become quieter and sadder. Meg was not an indifferent person, and was in fact made sad very easily by many things. Certain heartwarming television commercials for office products made her cry. (Their mother, a woman given to characterizing pronouncements about matters large and small, always said Meg had a soft heart that melted like butter in the sun.) A glimpse of a beggar on the street could be Meg's undoing for the rest of the afternoon. She had been known to empty her wallet for a homeless-or allegedly homeless-person on numerous and not always well-timed occasions. "Meg went out with the grocery money and no blindfold" was Green family code for those nights when scrambled eggs or take-out food was on the menu as the consequence of a Meg encounter with some convincingly pathetic soul somewhere en route to shopping errands. One suspiciously robust and persistently present character, who sat perpetually on a stoop on their block with his dog beside a ragged cardboard sign claiming late-stage AIDS infection and homelessness, had been so successful in extracting grocery money from Meg over recent months that everyone in the family had come to think of him as "Meg's miracle bum."
Their mother had an affair and they found out.
By the time they found out-a careless matter of a single incriminating e-mail-it had already ended. Who was he? He was Philip Hart, a graduate student in his twenties for whose dissertation-concerning obsession in the late novels of Henry James-Janet had been the adviser. That it was Philip Hart was especially shocking to Meg, Joanna, and Amy, as he was one of Janet's cultivated collection of devoted, bright NYU graduate students, who, on countless nights, were invited to be part of the famously delicious and stimulating Green family dinners. Phil had struck them as so sweet and gentle and soft-spoken when he first came into their orbit the previous winter, so sensitive and funny, that the Green sisters had debated for weeks the question of his sexual orientation.
Henry Jamesish in his own ambiguities though he may have been (it was a small and bitter irony that the nature of his personal sexual desires should ever have been in doubt, let alone the object of now retrospectively mortifyingly detailed speculation on numerous occasions within earshot of their mother), he was a dear boy, the three sisters agreed, and Amy in particular had developed a small crush on him that had lasted many months. It was especially unfortunate that it was she who found the damning evidence on the computer in the study.
Home after an exhausting day of working as an arts and crafts counselor for six-year-olds in a summer program at the YMCA, she had merely been checking e-mail and then rummaging the family computer in an idle, mindless fashion. What she found was a beseeching message from Philip Hart begging their mother, his "little fuckbird"-yes, their own darling mother, a.k.a. Janet Green! Somebody's little fuckbird!-the very same woman who had nourished them in so many ways, soothing their fevered brows with those same cool, slender fingers which had, apparently "inflamed the very core of" Philip Hart every time she "caressed" his "John Thomas"-not to break off with him because they were, after all, "in ecstatic cahoots" as no other man and woman had ever been at any previous time in history. He could not stop thinking, he further declared, about certain mutually experienced "midnight implosions"; to hell with everything and everyone else, they were meant to be together.
When Meg and Joanna arrived home from their summer jobs a short while later, they were stunned by the irrefutable meaning of what Amy showed them.
"It's got to be part of something he's writing," Joanna said unconvincingly even to herself, grasping at this flimsiest of explanatory straws, after her first reading over Amy's shoulder. "Aren't these mostly some kind of literary references?"
"I don't think you're right, Jo-Jo," Meg whispered sadly, from Amy's other side. Her hand rested soothingly on the back of Amy's neck. "This is addressed to her. It's an e-mail. It's not a big quotation from something, and there's nothing here that sounds like Henry James, either. Except for the long sentences. There might be some literary references we don't get, sure, but this is something personal to Janet from Phil Hart."
"How can this be happening to us?" Amy wailed. "Are Janet and Lou getting divorced? I can't stand it! I hate Philip Hart! I hate him! I want him to die! Him and his fucking bow ties. What if he has AIDS? What if Janet dies? Then if Lou dies we would be orphans! This is like something on television! I don't want to be part of an after-school special."
"Philip Hart was the one getting the after-school specials, apparently," Joanna said bitterly, now having reread the damning message three times. There really was no other explanation she could imagine. "Did she answer this? Is there a reply here?" She reached over Amy's shoulder and jabbed at the computer mouse, searching for sent messages or others from "email@example.com." (Philip Hart's unfortunate elision would have provoked much mirth under other circumstances.)
"Nothing. No sent messages from her at all. Just all of yours, Amy. Here's one of mine. Meg, Meg, mine, Amy again. No, nothing else of hers. Nothing else in the inbox. She either used her office computer or she's deleted anything else on this one that was to or from him, I guess, except for this one message, and it's dated, what, three days ago. Tuesday. What were we doing on Tuesday? So, wait, where did it go? It's not in the inbox. Where did you find it, Ames?"
"In the trash," Amy said sadly. "There were three things in the trash, and they were all Janet's, but the other two were just regular NYU things." Joanna relinquished the mouse and Amy clicked open the trash folder. "See, here they are. Blah blah the meeting, blah blah the committee."
"Oh, honey, you were so bored you were reading Janet's old NYU e-mails in the trash?" Joanna said. "We have to get you more good books. Did you finish those Maugham short stories?"
"Yeah, whatever," Amy agreed. "It is totally pathetic. I had started to practice my flute piece, but it was just too hot and my fingers felt like sausages. I don't really know why I did it, I wasn't thinking about anything, you know? Don't you ever just click around for no reason? Sort of zoning out, you know? Like reading a homework assignment from fifth grade when you find it in an old backpack, or like really, really reading all the insane personal ads in the back of Janet's New York Review of Books? Anyway, the trash doesn't automatically empty every time you shut down the way it used to. Daddy told us at dinner, remember, last week, the night you burned the couscous, Meg, you know, when Janet's nonverbal Swedish student-with the braids, you know, the one in the beautiful blue striped shirt-the night she was here?"
"The D. H. Lawrence girl, yes, so, whatever, and I wasn't the one who turned the heat up, someone else did, but what's your point?" Meg replied impatiently.
"Yes, so, that was the night Lou talked about the article he had read in some journal. Whosis, Astrid, Estrid, Pippi Longstocking, what was her name? Anyway, she had accidentally trashed a chapter of her thesis? Remember she was talking with Janet about that? And that was when Lou said he had changed the settings on both computers in the apartment plus all of our notebooks so the trash isn't automatically deleted anymore, because he read about some scientific laboratory where they save every day's actual trash in different wastebaskets for a week in case someone throws away an important equation on a scrap of paper or something. So I deleted the trash like maybe four days ago, because it was full of junk spam like all those 'Enlarge your penis now!' e-mails, and now we have to do it manually-"
"Whatever, and I think her name was Astrid, but who the fuck cares?" Meg interrupted, having studied every word of the horrible message all the way through once again while Amy was rambling. "The trashed yet not-trashed message is here and we're reading it. We get the picture." She gave a small shudder and took a little step back from the desk, closing her eyes for a moment, needing physical distance from what she couldn't help but read over and over.
"What are we going to do?" Joanna said. There was silence. "You guys? Hello? We have a major crisis here? We need a plan? Like, what the hell are we going to do?" They stared at one another for a long moment.
"Meg, you first," Amy whispered, sucking on one of her knuckles.
"Nothing, maybe?" Meg suggested tentatively. She mentally calculated how many days remained of her summer internship at the literary agency, which she loved. Almost three weeks to go before she could escape back to New Haven.
"PhilHartPhilHartPhil, heart-fill, hurtful," Amy murmured in the way she had of playing with words, often without even realizing she was doing it aloud. "FuckPhil. KillPhil."
"You mean just act like we don't know?" Joanna said dubiously. She couldn't imagine this strategy working for an hour. How would they face their mother at dinner in a little while? And every day after that?
"Don't you think that's an option at least, Jo-Jo?" Meg, the voice of reason.
"We have to tell Lou," Amy interrupted. "Oh my God." She turned to each of her sisters. Tears streaked her cheeks. She thumped her hands against the sides of her own head in anguish. "Oh my God. God. God. God. He'll want to kill himself. We can't tell him."
"Do you think maybe he already knows?" Joanna wondered, leaning forward to take Amy's hands in her own and gently pull them down. She perched on the corner of the desk and swung a foot against Amy's chair, rocking Amy slightly with each movement. She felt oddly detached and rational, not like her usual firecracker self at all, more like a scientist in a laboratory gazing at a microscopic specimen in contemplation of an experiment gone awry. "Lou knows Janet a lot better than we do, after all. And anyway, he's not just going to do something crazy."
"How do you know?" Amy moaned. "She's been doing something crazy! Who would have thought Janet could do something like this? Maybe they're both having affairs, I don't know! And you don't know either, Jo-Jo, even though you think you're such an expert on everybody in this insane family."
"Look, maybe it really does have some other meaning," Meg said, attempting to start from scratch all over again. She hugged herself for a moment as if warding off a chill. "We don't really have any way to know what it means.
Excerpted from The Little Women by KATHARINE WEBER Copyright © 2003 by Katharine Weber. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
"Witty and compassionate . . . Set in today's America, The Little Women pays purposeful homage to Louisa May Alcott's classic . . . Sheer fun." -The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
About This Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to augment your group's reading of Katharine Weber's novel The Little Women. We hope this guide will enhance your discussion of the story and help to improve your understanding of the adolescent struggles and coming-of-age triumphs facing the adorably smart and likeable Meg, Joanna, and Amy Green.
Bringing contemporary sensibilities to Louisa May Alcott's inimitable nineteenth-century heroines, acclaimed novelist Katharine Weber has created a narrative rich with thought-provoking topics. An innovative reinvention of Meg, Jo, and Amy, The Little Women places the sisters in a decidedly modern dilemma when they discover that their mother, a literature professor at New York University, has been having an affair with one of her graduate students. Their image of family perfection shattered, the sisters can't forgive their mother (though their father does). Choosing to exile themselves in New Haven, Connecticut, where Meg is attending Yale, the siblings find independence to be more elusive than they had anticipated. As they cope with the absence of parents, money, and vibrant Manhattan, the trio faces a semester of challenges with the strength of character made famous by their Little Women predecessors. But Weber does more than recast the story line: in an entertaining stroke of metafiction, The Little Women features copious notes-ranging from highbrow literary debates to lowbrow squabbles -- between Joanna (the book's "author") and her two sisters.
Raising invigorating questions about family ties, romantic pursuits as well as academic ones, memoir versus autobiographical fiction, and the role of Alcott's phenomenal bestseller in the lives of readers today, The Little Women lends itself to lively and diverse conversation. We hope the following questions will enrich your discussion of the Green sisters and their abbreviated adolescence.
Questions for Discussion
- In The Little Women, the daughters are cast as the moral arbiters of their parents. Do you consider the Green family's situation to be unusual, or does it represent a universal coming-of-age experience? Do you believe that family dynamics have changed significantly since the 1868 publication of Little Women, or have writers simply become more realistic in their depictions of authority figures?
- Like Louisa May Alcott, Joanna Green credits her family with inspiring her to write her novel. Louisa May Alcott, in the preface to her final book, Jo's Boys, even pays tribute to a sister who "was here to suggest, criticize, and laugh over her namesake." What is the effect of reading the Green sisters' debates? How might you have mediated some of their disagreements? Should novelists strive to invent entirely imaginary scenarios and characters rather than draw on their own lives for material?
- Materialism figures prominently in both novels as the sisters try to navigate household finances and social status on a tight budget. This is especially evident in Amy's botched attempt to win friends through sharing sushi (in Alcott's version, Amy's fashionable contraband was pickled limes). Does life in New Haven impart any sort of awakening among the Green girls about consumerism? Are they more concerned about creature comforts than their nineteenth-century counterparts were?
- During Alcott's lifetime, American women were vulnerable in ways that the Green sisters are not, especially in terms of property ownership, the right to vote, and access to reproductive health services. Are the edgy situations encountered by the women in Weber's novel -- including Janet Green -- therefore less gender specific than in Alcott's Little Women? Would the story line have been equally compelling with brothers as protagonists instead?
- Teddy observes that Beth does make an appearance in the form of the sisters' symbolically dead idealism. Alcott chose to let Beth survive scarlet fever in the first volume of Little Women, not having her succumb until the book's sequel, Good Wives. The effect is that Beth originally conveyed a kind of miraculous hope, in addition to eventually achieving martyr status. In what ways is the absence of such a character necessary in Weber's novel?
- Weber's captivating, accessible plot is laced with clever commentary on the community of authors, critics, and academicians she has inhabited throughout her career. In The Little Women, Weber addresses New Criticism, which scorns the use of historical context and author biography as valid venues for interpreting fiction. She raises the issue of whether novelists are transgressing when they fictionalize the private lives of their friends and family. She also engages in intertextuality, responding to another novelist's fiction through the medium of fiction itself. What insight did you gather about the sometimes disparate motivations of authors, critics, and academicians? How might Louisa May Alcott have weighed in on such debates?
- Did you experience The Little Women as satire or homage? Melodrama or realism? Tragedy or comedy?
- While Alcott's Little Women series is steeped in matters of the heart, her books contain no overt references to sexuality. In Weber's hands, Jo (described ambiguously by Alcott as a tomboy who on stage "played male parts to her heart's content") wins the unambiguous attentions of a lesbian. Extramarital affairs and the morning-after pill not only drive Weber's narrative but also establish the time period of the novel. Do these features characterize contemporary "women's fiction" in general? Was Alcott's chaste depiction of her characters essential to the success of her books?
- In both books, Teddy is sometimes mischievous and sometimes the household's voice of wisdom. Do you perceive him as divisive or helpful? How does his lack of parents shape his attitude toward the sisters?
- Which of the three sisters garnered the most empathy from you? Compared with your own sibling experience, is the dynamic among the Green sisters typical or unusual?
- Harriet, the photographer, was a character in Weber's novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. In what ways does Harriet's photography mirror Joanna's fiction writing? How has Harriet evolved since Weber introduced her in the 1990s?
- The various locales in The Little Women are depicted in vivid detail. Discuss the study in contrasts offered by Manhattan and New Haven, private school and public school, the apartment where the sisters were raised and the one to which they retreat with Meg. What makes the novel's overall geographic setting so appropriate?
- What is the significance of that small definite article ("the") in the title of The Little Women?
- The characters in Alcott's books derive their moral sensibilities from religion; the family patriarch is even a chaplain, and Jo's son Teddy becomes a clergyman. What prism do the Green sisters use for determining their code of ethics? What are your parameters for assessing whether the characters are noble?
- The Green sisters debate whether Joanna's closing scenes make for a satisfying ending to the novel. Were she to write a sequel, what outcomes would you predict for her and her family?
"Katharine Weber packs humor and wit into a coming-of-age novel for modern-day young women and sisters everywhere." -Booklist
"A novel of the old school: chock-full of literary allusions and very hard not to like." -Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Katharine Weber is the author of two previous novels, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear and The Music Lesson. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Story, Southwest Review, Redbook, and elsewhere. She is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a frequent contributor to many national publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, and the Chicago Tribune. Weber teaches fiction writing at Yale University and is currently at work on a novel inspired by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She and her husband, the cultural historian Nicholas Fox Weber, live in Connecticut. They have two daughters.