I must have pretty little myself when I last read LITTLE WOMEN, because I don’t think I’ve read it as an adult, at least not all the way through. I decided to return to it after reading Jane Smiley’s THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL, which contains some fascinating commentaries on a hundred books, including Louisa May Alcott’s classic. I wasn’t sure about it at first: the opening chapters seemed clunky and when the girls gave up their Christmas breakfast to feed a poor family, the didacticism seemed too overt. But then it took hold. I raced through both parts and was sorry when it ended. What redeems it is that these are girls with real flaws, capable of behaving badly: I was horrified when Amy burned Jo’s manuscripts. Yes, there is sentimentality – the baby talk of Meg’s children is nauseating – but mostly it is held in check. Beth’s illness and death has an element of realism that you don’t find in, say, the death of Little Nell. The pain isn’t glossed over. In many ways of course the lives of these four girls are worlds away from the experiences of young women today. As Jane Smiley points out, ‘Jo and her three sisters aren’t recognisable teenagers any more’ . . . and yet and yet . . . The novel opens with Meg and Jo both doing work which they find uncongenial, one as a governess and other as companion to Aunt March and the over-riding theme of the novel is how they are to live and find their way in life. True, both Meg and Amy in the end find their destiny as wives and mothers, but Jo finds some success as a writer and ends by assisting her husband in running a school as well as bringing up her own children. It seems to me that the question of how to combine work outside the home and children still hasn’t been satisfactorily solved – and perhaps it never will be in the sense of a solution that fits all. There can only be individual accommodations. I was amused by Jane Smiley’s point that when Jo falls in love with Professor Bhaer ‘there could be no Prince Charming less appealing in the eyes of an eleven-year-old reader,’ though to an older reader he seems a far more suitable husband for Jo. I too remember being disappointed that Jo rejected the proposal of Laurie, the good-looking, wealthy boy next door. This time round I felt she was quite right to go for a professor. After all I married one myself.
I’ve read a number of Anne Tyler’s novels and enjoyed them. I think LADDER OF YEARS and BREATHING LESSONS are particularly good. (As I write this, the cat has just climbed into my in tray – is he trying to tell me something?). But I wasn’t so sure about AN AMATEUR MARRIAGE, nor about the latest, DIGGING TO AMERICA which I’ve just finished. “|???? (Cat has just walked across key board – he definitely wants something). Yes, there is some marvellous writing: she perfectly catches the irrationality and pain and disorientation of bereavement; the themes of parenthood, belonging, growing old are in themselves endlessly fascinating; and she is so good on the petty anxieties and confusions of human relationship. And yet, and yet . . . I found myself skipping ahead. Partly it was that I didn’t like one of the main characters – Bitsy – what a name! – so bossy and judgmental – and there were just too many characters. I found myself flicking back to work out who some of the minor ones were – always a bad sign. And was there just a hint of saccharine towards the end?
Could it be that Tyler wrote her best books mid-career ? That seems to be have been the case with John Updike and of some other writers. One of them is Jane Smiley: A THOUSAND ACRES is a masterpiece. Has she written anything quite as good since that? I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to wonder if writers have a finite number of really good novels in them.