The March sisters—reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth—have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger.
Meg appears to have the life she always planned—the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you’ve ever wanted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When their mother’s illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they’ll rediscover what really matters.
One thing’s for sure—they’ll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams.
About the Author
Virginia is married to her college sweetheart, a coffee shop owner who keeps her well supplied with caffeine and material. They make their home in North Carolina, where they raised three (mostly adult) children. She is a firm believer in the strength of family, the importance of storytelling, and the power of love.
Her favorite thing to make for dinner? Reservations.
Read an Excerpt
Our mother taught us girls if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. But Momma wasn't trying to make it as a food blogger in New York City.
Negative reviews got a lot more clicks than positive ones. And I still had three hundred more words to write today.
A distant burst of car horns drifted up the fire escape to my apartment, the rush of traffic like the city breathing. I tightened my ponytail. Typed: The food at Earl's Eats in the East Village is not your momma's cooking. And not in a good way. Neither original nor authentic, the stereotypical menu clings to cliché without delivering either the heart or soul of true Southern home cooking.
My phone chirped on the table beside me. A comment!
Nope. A phone call.
"Hey, Jo. Whatcha doing?"
I smiled at the sound of my sister's voice. In the last few weeks, my circle had shattered. The friends I laughed and bickered and shared everything with had moved away. My roommate Ashmeeta had followed a job to Boston. My pal Rachel had followed a boyfriend to Portland. But I could always count on Meg.
"I thought you were off today," Meg said.
A siren whooped in the distance. "From the restaurant, yeah. I'm writing."
"Oh, your blog." I could hear one of the twins-two-year-old Daisy, or maybe that was DJ-chanting in the background: "Mommy. Ma. Mamamama." "How's it going?"
I smiled. "Good."
Okay, not Julie & Julia or Smitten Kitchen good. Mine was not a success story. Or an interesting story of failure, like the gritty novels admired by my faculty advisor, where the small-town girl falls into a life of drugs and prostitution. Or even a Hallmark screenplay, where the heroine goes home to embrace her small-town roots and marry her high school sweetheart, finding love and purpose along the way. There was no big book advance, no movie deal, no guest appearance on the Food Network in my immediate future. Nope. The blog was more a fallback position than the fulfillment of my Life Plan. But I was slowly picking up readers. Instagram followers. E-mail subscribers. Even a few advertisers, which helped pay the rent since I'd been laid off from the newspaper. "Last hired, first fired," my editor had explained regretfully when he let me go.
My dismissal had come as a shock. Yeah, yeah, I knew all about the dismal decline of print journalism. But I was supposed to be the smart one. The successful one. Certainly back when I wrote the school play and edited the school paper, graduating summa cum laude from Carolina and earning an MFA from NYU, I never imagined a future as an anonymous food blogger.
But I was determined to make this work. I earned a little money as a prep cook. The experience-and the insider's view of a top restaurant kitchen-were great. I hadn't given up my dream, I explained to my father on my last visit home. After all, I was still writing, getting comments (reader feedback!) on a daily basis. The book deal would come. After, you know, I scraped together a book. I just had to survive until then.
"I tested a new recipe yesterday," I said. "For mac and cheese. Did you see it?"
"On your blog?"
"No. I mean, not yet. Sorry," Meg said. "No, Daisy, that's DJ's cup. This is your cup."
"That's okay," I said.
"It's just I've been so busy with the twins . . ."
"I understand," I said.
And I did. Why should my sister read about my life when we talked almost every day? No one back home in Bunyan followed my blog. They went out for barbecue or home for Sunday dinner. They weren't interested in the restaurant scene in New York City. Or in the people who ate there. Or in the person I'd become. Fortunately for me, New Yorkers searched for "places to eat" almost as frequently as "the Mets" or "rent-controlled apartments."
"How are my adorable niece and nephew?" I asked.
"The kids are great," Meg said.
A crash, followed by a wail.
"Oopsie," Meg said. "I have to go. Daisy threw her milk."
"It's okay." I pushed back from my desk, almost bumping into the opposite wall. My Chelsea studio on the fringes of public housing was half the size of my attic room back home. No real stove, no storage, no homemade curtains framing a view of pasture and pine. Since Ashmeeta moved out, I struggled to pay the rent. But I was still living on my own in New York City, epicenter of the food scene and the publishing world. The capital of reinvention, where being a single woman over the age of twenty-seven was not an aberration. "I'll hold."
"Are you sure?" Meg asked.
"Me, Mommy, me." I smiled at the imperious tone on the other end of the line. Definitely Daisy this time. "I talk with Auntie Jo."
"Give her the phone," I said.
"You don't mind?" my sister asked.
I wandered the two steps into my two-burner kitchen. Reached for the bottle of wine I'd brought home from work the night before. Was it too early to start drinking? But no, it was almost . . . Well, not dinnertime, but definitely after lunch. "Are you kidding?" I asked. "Put her on."
I adored my niece and nephew, the warm, sticky clasp of their starfish hands, their cries of "Auntie Jo! Auntie Jo!" whenever I visited home. Not that I was ready for babies of my own. Meg was the maternal one. But I loved that while my sister cleaned the spilled milk on her kitchen floor, I could pour my wine and listen to her children on the phone. First Daisy ("I haz bangs," my niece announced with glee) and then DJ's earnest, heavy breathing, like an obscene phone caller or Dan, the homeless guy in front of the bodega where I bought my morning coffee.
"Sorry," Meg apologized breathlessly, coming back on the line.
"No problem. So . . ." I took a sip of wine. How a customer could leave a sixty-nine-dollar bottle of cabernet sitting half-full on their table, I'd never understand. "Daisy has a new haircut?"
"They're working on scissor skills in preschool," Meg said ruefully.
I snorted with laughter. "Let me guess. Daisy decided paper wasn't enough of a challenge."
"When I went to pick her up, all her beautiful baby curls were gone. I almost cried."
"Look on the bright side," I suggested. "She could have an amazing future as a surgeon. Or a seamstress."
"Or a hairstylist."
"At least hair grows," I offered.
"That's what John said."
"How is my favorite brother-in-law?"
My only brother-in-law, actually, but I liked my sister's solid husband. I really did. When they got married, I thought Meg was awfully young-only twenty-six-but by Bunyan standards she was practically an old maid.
"Oh, he's fine. Everything's fine," she said. Which is what she always said. Living the dream in Bunyan, North Carolina.
Her dream, anyway.
Meg had planned her life in careful steps, from a sensible major-business-to a practical career as a loan officer at the bank. Managing risk. She was good at that. She dated John for a year before they got engaged and produced two adorable children only a little ahead of schedule.
I waited for her to tell me again about her handsome husband, her fantastically satisfying life, her yard.
"Guess who's coming to Thanksgiving dinner?" she asked.
I blinked at the change of subject. "Um . . . Aunt Phee?"
Our great-aunt Josephine spent most holidays with our family. No one else would have the old bat.
"Who else," Meg said.
"Mr. Laurence." Our next-door neighbor.
"Both the Laurences," Meg said. "Trey's home."
My wine sloshed. I set the glass down hastily. "I thought he was in Italy. Driving Maseratis or something for his grandfather."
Theodore Laurence III-Trey-was old Mr. Laurence's grandson. We'd practically grown up together. I hadn't seen him since July, when he had a layover at JFK on his way to Florence. We'd fought-again-both of us too stubborn to change our minds and too proud to apologize.
"Ferraris. He got back last week," Meg said. "He was asking about you, John said."
Trey was John's boss at the Laurences' car dealership. I was vague on the details. "I hope John told him I was great."
"Well, of course." A pause, while I listened to a jackhammer across the street. "Trey didn't know you'd left the newspaper."
Sweet Meg. She made it sound as if my being let go was my decision.
"We kind of lost touch over the summer," I said.
He'd stopped following me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and Pinterest. We were still friends, though. His face showed up occasionally in my various newsfeeds, usually tagged in a photo by some unknown Ashley or Jennifer. I told myself that was a good sign he was over me.
"So, do you think you two will ever get back together?" Meg asked.
"There is no together," I said. "We never were together."
Which wasn't, strictly speaking, true. Trey was my buddy, my oldest pal and coconspirator, one of the few friends I'd kept in touch with after high school.
But when I left for New York, Trey, instead of being happy for me, had sulked for months.
"You're not seeing anybody else," Meg said.
I took a deep breath. My sister only wanted me to be happy. In her world, as in Shakespeare's comedies, marriage was the restoration of the social order. I couldn't get her to see that my staying single was not a tragedy.
I went out a lot-to keep an eye on the competition, to gather grist for the blog mill, to indulge in the usual late-night, postshift rituals of kitchen workers everywhere. But I didn't date. Nobody outside the restaurant industry understood the insane, pressure cooker hours, the nights-and-weekends schedule. And dating someone on the inside . . . Well, aside from the drama, I didn't want to risk writing, even anonymously, about someone I'd had sex with.
"I don't have time for a relationship," I said.
"Or you haven't found anyone you can love like Trey," Meg said.
"Of course I love him. As a friend. But if we had to live together, we'd kill each other."
"You were best friends in high school."
"You're my best friend." We had always been close, paired together in age like Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. (In my imaginings, of course, Meg was Jane, and I was snarky, independent Lizzy.)
"Aw. Love you," Meg said. "I wish you could be here for Thanksgiving."
This year, I wouldn't be going home. Or taking New Jersey Transit from Penn Station to Summit, where Ashmeeta's parents lived. No Thursday turkey with a side of palak paneer and naan. No Friday night Girls marathon and martinis on the couch with Rachel.
This year, I was alone for the holidays.
"At least you'll see Beth," I said. Our sister Beth, after a couple of false starts, was back in college at Greensboro, studying music. But she went home every holiday. Most weekends, too.
"And Amy," Meg said.
"I thought she was going back to Paris. Doesn't she start that job this month?"
Amy, after sweet-talking Aunt Phee into giving her a trip to Europe as a graduation present, had schmoozed her way into an internship with Louis Vuitton.
"She put them off until after Thanksgiving," Meg said. "She feels bad enough about missing Christmas with the family."
I took another sip of wine. "How's Dad?" I asked.
"Dad's fine. He's going up to Walter Reed this week to visit some of his old battalion."
So that was good.
After 9/11, our father had left his congregation to join up as a military chaplain. After his first fifteen-month deployment, he'd re-upped again. And again. Even after he got out of the army, he had rejected assignment to another church, instead founding a nonprofit that worked with returning veterans, helping them reintegrate into civilian life, providing counseling for PTSD.
I was so proud of his service. Even when it took him away from us.
"Mommy, down," Daisy demanded in the background.
"Hang on, sweetie. Let Mommy wipe your hands first," Meg said.
"Done. Down now."
"DJ, don't you want more apple?" Meg asked.
"He's not hungry, Mommy."
"Okay," my sister said in a cheery voice. I was impressed by her patience. Not to mention her ability to conduct two conversations at once. "Let's get you both cleaned up and-"
"Done. Done. Down." An escalating wail.
"If you need to go . . ." I said.
"In a little while. DJ needs a clean shirt." A pause. "Possibly a bath. He's got peanut butter in his ears."
I laughed. "I think you're amazing," I told my sister honestly.
"Thanks, sweetie. Some days I don't feel so amazing. This morning when I left the house, I didn't even put on makeup."
I grinned. "Oh, the horror. Appearing in public without mascara? They're going to revoke your Southern Woman card for sure."
"So funny. I know you don't care about stuff like that. But I do."
"I remember." Back in high school, borrowing clothes from each other's closets, fixing each other's hair for prom. Okay, sometimes Meg loaned me her clothes. She declared she wouldn't be seen dead in mine. And after that time I singed her hair with the straightening wand, she refused to let me near her head.
"Maybe you should get John to take you out," I suggested idly. Not that there was anyplace to go in Bunyan. Not like New York. "Like a date night."
"Maybe. Usually we just collapse on the couch and watch This Is Us. Well, I watch. He sleeps. He works so hard."
"So do you," I pointed out.
"Anyway, I've never left the kids with a babysitter."
"Okay." I took another sip of wine. But it seemed a shame my pretty, sociable sister couldn't get dressed up and go out for one night. "I bet Momma would watch them if you asked her."
"I can't. She's still having that back pain. Especially at night. And now that her legs are bothering her-"
I set down my glass. "What back pain?"
"Didn't she tell you?"
"No, she never said a word." And neither did you. "How long has this been going on?"
"I guess . . . Three weeks?"
"Three weeks," I repeated, stunned. Stung. Yes, I had sworn never to return to Bunyan. But Meg always kept me in touch. "Has she been to see a doctor?"
"Dr. Bangs." Who had been our family doctor since before I was born. "He wants her to get an MRI."
Reading Group Guide
Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra
Questions for Discussion
1. Meg & Jo is inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s classic story. What versions (book or movie) of Little Women are you familiar with? In what ways did Meg & Jo confirm your impressions of the characters? How did they surprise you?
2. The March sisters often repeat their mother, Abby’s, sayings (“If you can’t say something nice . . . “; “Whatever happens, we have each other.”) What sayings did you hear as a child? Do you ever find yourself repeating them? How did they direct your life?
3. Which of the sisters could you most identify with, and why?
4. Meg and John both show love by actions, not words. How does this work for and against them? Does it change? What would you say your style of showing love is?
5. Jo feels especially close to her father. Do you think her desire for his approval affected her other relationships? How did her perception of him change throughout the book? What did you think of Ashton as a man, husband, and father? Did you agree or disagree with Abby’s decision at the end of the book?
6. When the original Little Women was published, many readers were disappointed that Jo chose older Professor Eric Bhaer over her childhood friend, Laurie. How do you feel about her choice between Eric and Trey? Which sister do you think is a good match for Trey, and why?
7. Meg tells Jo that she’s unfair to Amy. Can you remember examples from the book that make you think this is true or not true? How would you describe Jo and Amy’s relationship? Does it remind you of sisters you know?
8. Major scenes in Meg & Jo involve food. What does cooking in the book mean to different characters? What does it mean to you? Do you have family or holiday traditions involving food?
9. The March girls find themselves reverting to their childhood roles when they are together. How does that compare with your own experience? What is your family role? Has it changed over time?