As the title suggests, Katharine Weber’s novel “The Little Women” asks to be read as a kind of updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic, “Little Women.” For anyone who has been caught up by the absorbing saga of the four March girls and their incident- and emotion-filled journeys toward self-knowledge, mutual understanding, responsibility and maturity, Weber’s shallow, self-satisfied riff on the coming-of-age novel is bound to be a disappointment, rather like sitting down for a multi-course banquet and being given a few sticks of chewing gum. Alcott’s “Little Women” may not be “Middlemarch,” but next to Weber’s coy little production, the March sisters’ saga begins to look like “The Brothers Karamazov.”
Weber, who teaches fiction writing at Yale University, is the author of two earlier novels, “The Music Lesson” and “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Her third is not an advance on its predecessors. It does not explore new ground and suffers from some of the flaws that marred her earlier work: an air of show-offy glibness and a tendency to become mired in the external trappings of sociocultural minutiae at the expense of psychological insight.
The premise, briefly, is this: three sisters, Meg, Joanna and Amy Green (Beth, we’re informed, is left out of this version because she died young), enjoy a life of upper-middle-class bliss on New York’s Upper West Side with their intelligent, charming and devoted parents, Janet (an English professor at NYU) and Lou (a brilliant inventor). One day the youngest Green, 15-year-old Amy, discovers a lurid and intimate e-mail written to her mother by one of her graduate students, Phil Hart. All three sisters sadly realize that the evidence is incontrovertible: Their mother has cheated on their father.
When they confront their parents, Janet and Lou tell them that it’s true but that the affair is over and the marriage is still intact. For some reason, the girls are wildly distressed by all of this: not only that their parents’ seemingly perfect marriage was not perfect, not only that their idolized mother had feet of clay but also that their father is so ready to forgive her. The girls, particularly the younger two, Joanna and Amy, want their mother to pay: They want anger, vituperation and divorce proceedings.
Furious, Joanna and Amy decide to move out. Since oldest sister Meg is about to begin her junior year at Yale and is living off campus in an apartment, the two girls decide to move in with her. This entails leaving their private school in New York and enrolling in an inner-city public high school in New Haven. Just as the March girls had a staunch and appealing friend in Teddy, the boy next door, so the Green sisters have a friend in Yale student Teddy, who, in late 20th century fashion, actually (but, of course, chastely) shares their New Haven digs with them.
The story is narrated by middle sister Joanna (an aspiring writer like Jo March, get it?) and embellished with sometimes admiring, but more often indignant, critical commentary by her two sisters:
“This doesn’t really feel like a novel to me in the first place,” notes Amy, “but just when it seems, at least, to really capture actual events, you make things up.”
The Green sisters’ continuing debate about the nature of truth and fiction soon becomes tiresome. By now deconstructionism is hardly news, and at this level, it’s soporific as well as sophomoric. Weber’s use of the sisterly commentary is also very obviously a device by which she hopes to inoculate herself against the criticism of real readers. But having Meg exclaim at one point, “Boring, boring, boring! This is totally dragging!” does not make Joanna’s cliche-riddled reprisal of her parents’ early halcyon days any less lifeless than it already is.
Situations that look as though they might develop interestingly don’t. How do Joanna and Amy actually manage at the inner-city New Haven high school? All we get to see are Amy’s problems trying to join a clique -- something that could have happened at any school, suburban, urban, public or private. And what of Meg’s infatuation with a visiting professor of popular culture, who’s handsome, charming, married and definitely Bad News? The stage is set for some real emotion, but we are given nothing more than secondhand gossip.
And what about the casus belli of the novel, the girls’ fury at their parents? The reader can see from the outset how childishly they are behaving. But the author (no Alcott!) does not bother to depict the internal process by which their feelings and perceptions are transformed from anger and spite to forgiveness and compassion.
Weber’s technique might be called paint-by-the-numbers. This is one of those novels that seems to be constructed entirely from references to lifestyles, brand names and other sociocultural signposts. The characters are like cutout dolls with cutout clothes. Far more time is spent in evoking their cultural niche than in exploring who they are, how they think and feel or what they actually do.
“The Little Women” is a self-consciously “literary” novel. It has a literary feel, is strewn with literary references and is written in what passes these days for a literary manner: self-conscious, allusive and ironic. But it is nonetheless a far cry from being Literature.