May 28, 2005

BOOKS: The Little Women, Katharine Weber (2003)

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have met the author socially once or twice at dinner parties and similar occasions. We're not close friends, by any stretch; even if we were, that wouldn't keep me from giving an honest opinion about her work. I'm a strong believer that the author is not the book, and criticism of the work isn't meant to be (and shouldn't be taken as) criticism of the author. That having been said, it's still more fun when you can say nice things about the work of people you know, and there are very nice things to be said about Weber's The Little Women.

Meg, Joanna, and Amy Green are sisters, living an idyllic family life in Manhattan when they discover that their mother has been having an affair. Furious at her for violating the sanctity of their family, and even more furious at their father for forgiving her, the two younger daughters leave home and move in with Meg at her New Haven apartment (she's a Yale student).

Three years later, Joanna has written an "autobiographical novel" about the sisters' time in New Haven, and it is Joanna's The Little Women that Weber gives us here. In a "Note to the Reader," Joanna explains to us that her sisters objected to her publishing this book at all, and that as part of the legal settlement allowing it to be published, she has been obliged to let her sisters insert their own commentary throughout the book, in the form of Reader's Notes, to which she often responds with her own Author's Notes. What that gives us is a literary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with Joanna's novel as the background against which all three sisters kibitz and grouse at one another.

Meg and Amy have complaints about both halves of the phrase "autobiographical novel," complaining that Joanna has altered the facts in some spots and been unkindly honest in others, which raises the closely related key questions of the book: How far from reality can an author stray and still call her work "autobiography" (or "memoir"), and how close to reality can an author stay and still call her work "fiction"? Even more important, what responsibility does an author have to the people and events in her life that may be used as source material for her work?

The structure of the book poses some unusual challenges. Joanna is 17 at the time of these events, 20 when her book is published, so Weber has to write in the voice of a young, inexperienced (though not untalented) writer. And in the brief space used for Reader/Author Notes -- somewhere around ten percent of the book, if that much -- she has to give us enough sense of who Meg, Joanna, and Amy are in the "real" world outside Joanna's book that we have some idea when Joanna might be distorting events and why.

Given the names of her characters, and of this book, it's clear that Weber is also riffing on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and there are supporting characters in Alcott's novel who have analogues here -- the best-friend boy-next-door type who is a potential suitor, the older European professor. Having not read Alcott, I have no idea how close the parallels run, and that didn't keep me from enjoying the story at all; I would imagine that familiarity with Alcott would only provide additional levels of enjoyment. Of course, since Alcott's characters have become so well-known and loved in our culture, Weber's use of them means that all of the questions that Joanna's sisters raise about authorial responsibility towards those who've inspired her writing might equally well be directed at Weber.

As if all of this wasn't enough to think about, in the final colloquy of Reader/Author Notes, Joanna (and Weber) drop a bombshell that makes us go back and re-evaluate the entire story from a new perspective, and reminds us that the phrase "unreliable narrator" is almost always redundant.

If all of this has made The Little Women sound like a tedious exercise in literary theory, it's not. The characters are vivid, the prose is crisp and witty, and the story moves along in a brisk, lively fashion. It's an absolutely delightful book. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Katharine Weber said...

Thank you for your kind and astute comments, Keith.