Author On the Bookcase: Kelly O'Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
Author On the Bookcase
Kelly O'Connor McNees
So thrilled to welcome Kelly O’Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. Kelly's story includes factual accounts with fictional ideas to study Alcott's life and loves. With fine details from 19-century New England, the novel centers on a fictional period of her life -- Louisa attracts the attention and affection of Joseph Singer, a charming merchant. Should she reciprocate his feelings and maybe lose her independence and a career as a writer. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott humanizes the writer and paints Louisa as she was -- a complex and strong woman.
Kelly chats about her love of Little Women and her fascination with Lousia May Alcott.
Every year around Thanksgiving I get the urge to reread Little Women. The story begins, of course, in December, with Jo March lying on the rug, declaring that “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” The four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—and their mother, Marmee, are missing Mr. March, an army chaplain who has been called to the Civil War battlefields to minister to the injured and dying soldiers. Things just aren’t the same without their father there to guide them. Over the course of the story, the March sisters must learn to overcome their individual weaknesses: pride, anger, timidity, and vanity. In the end we see that they are no longer little girls but grown women.
Sounds cheesy, right? And hopelessly quaint, not to mention a celebration of calcified nineteenth-century gender roles. It is all those things. But every year I yearn to read it just the same. There’s something deeply soothing about the simplicity of its moral universe, where the purpose of life is improvement. Good people should try, always, to be better: more generous, more contemplative, more committed.
And, to be totally honest, there’s just one more tiny reason I reread this book: Ever year I hope against hope that Jo and Teddy “Laurie” Lawrence, the next-door neighbor and Jo’s kindred spirit, will end up together. Alas, in all these years it has never turned out differently. Why, I wondered countless times, did Louisa end Little Women the way she did?
The direct answer is the one Louisa herself gave when asked this question by readers. Little Women was a huge bestseller right out of the gate, and Louisa received hundreds of letters asking about Jo and Laurie. The pair could not marry, Louisa explained, because Jo would no longer be Jo if she chose to live a conventional life. Even when Jo marries Professor Bhaer at the end—a plot twist Louisa was forced to tack on at her publisher’s request—it is not the sort of passionate love affair one might hope to see. The professor is much older than Jo and their relationship is mainly an intellectual alliance. Bo-ring!
Louisa’s defense of Jo’s choice never satisfied me. A few years ago, on a whim, I picked up a biography on Louisa and found myself utterly surprised and fascinated by this woman I knew so little about. Her most famous novel represented only a small part of who she was—and, it turns out, Louisa never even wanted to write it. Though she never had a love affair, late in life Louisa burned letters and journals, a fact I found intriguing. The more I learned about who Louisa was, her triumphs and disappointments, I realized there was a great deal about her life I wanted to, for lack of a better word, examine. I had never felt that way about any historical figure before.
But I had more questions than answers. Much of what I wanted to know couldn’t be known. And that’s when I realized that, counterintuitively, fiction was probably the only avenue that might lead me to some answers. By writing about Louisa—creating a fictional episode for the Louisa in my imagination, that is—I could come to see her more clearly, see what was inside her heart and mind as a young woman starting out in the world. Perhaps this story could explain the origin of the character of Laurie and why Louisa would want to save Jo, her fictional alter ego, from heartbreak.
The result is The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, a novel set in 1855 when Louisa was just twenty-two, yearning for independence in Boston and recognition as a writer, but stuck for the summer in sleepy Walpole, New Hampshire, with her family and one irritatingly charming young man named Joseph Singer.
Writing this novel has satisfied my questions—for now. Although I can’t be sure until November rolls around if I won’t start wondering all over again.
Thanks so much, Kelly, for sharing your novel "answer to a question'" about one of America's great writers. November is right around the corner -- come chat with us, if more questions come up!
". . . The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is the kind of romantic tale to which Alcott herself was partial, one in which love is important but not a solution to life's difficulties. Devotees of Little Women will flock to this story with pleasure."
—The Washington Post
"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
Kelly O’Connor McNees lives with her husband in Chicago. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is her first novel.
Please learn more about Kelly.