We’re starting this week off with a double feature: a combined review of two books, Meg & Jo and Beth & Amy which make up the March Sisters duology by Virginia Kantra. Duology means it’s a two-book series, or a book and its sequel.
I picked these books up for the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge hosted by Tarissa of In the Bookcase. I love this annual challenge, and while I didn’t have as much time or attention to devote this year as I would have liked, I still wanted to participate as much as I could! I’m glad I found time to read not only one but two books connected to LMA. They make for an interesting take on modernizing Little Women, and definitely stand out as containing a unique vision for the characters. I believe this is one of the longest reviews I have written in a while, but these books made me feel more things and more strongly than most of the books I have read recently!
About the Books
Title: Meg & Jo (March Sisters #1)
Author: Virginia Kantra
Synopsis (from Goodreads): The timeless classic Little Women inspired this heartwarming modern tale of four sisters from New York Times bestselling author Virginia Kantra.
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 live and reimagine their dreams.
My Rating: ⭐⭐.5 out of 5
Title: Beth & Amy (March Sisters #2)
Synopsis (From Goodreads): Amy March is more like her older sister Jo than she’d like to admit. An up-and-coming designer in New York’s competitive fashion industry, ambitious Amy is determined to get out of her sisters’ shadow and keep her distance from their North Carolina hometown. But when Jo’s wedding forces her home, she must face what she really wants…and confront the One Big Mistake that could upend her life and forever change her relationship with Jo.
Gentle, unassuming Beth grew up as the good girl of the family. A talented singer-songwriter, she’s overcome her painful anxiety to tour with country superstar Colt Henderson. But life on the road has taken its toll on her health and their relationship. Maybe a break to attend her sister’s wedding will get her out of her funk. But Beth realizes that what she’s looking for and what she needs are two very different things….
With the March women reunited, this time with growing careers and families, they must once again learn to lean on one another as they juggle the changes coming their way.
Okay, let’s get the hard truth out in the open first thing: I do not like the way that these characters were modernized, particularly the way that their morals are “updated.” There are a lot of things to praise and criticise about the story this author has chosen to tell, but my ultimate enjoyment and rating of the books is driven down by my intense disappointment with how the characters behave. Despite their father being a pastor-turned-chaplain and supposedly making faith and church a big part of their upbringing, none of the girls ever have any thoughts about anything deeper than the importance of family (which is important, I admit, but there were plenty of missed opportunities for other meaningful things to be included, too). Only Meg even mentions still going to church and even then it doesn’t appear to have an impact on her life beyond Sunday morning. And, yes, I’m hung up on the fact that all four of the sisters have slept with at least one man before they are married – and no one bats an eye. This may be 2021 but I expected stronger morals or at least an internal dialogue explaining the break (or supposed “development?”) in character. Also, the girls all grow up to be somewhat airheaded and flighty (yes, even Jo).
While I’m on this particular rant, let me share a moderate spoiler that left me feeling betrayed: the Beth of these books has an eating disorder, and the way her character is handled feels so cheap. Of course, from the way the author set the story up, Beth had to have some sort of problem. And if she wasn’t going to die in childhood (as she does in the original), then it does make some warped amount of sense for her to pursue a career in music and get caught up into an anxious and toxic mindset. But the way that Beth is shown as weak and with no backbone makes no sense. I’m going to have to reread Little Women to make sure I’m not mis-remembering her characterization, but I just don’t see it. Yes, Beth is a homebody and quiet and a peacemaker and delicate, but she’s not as self-centered and spineless as she is shown here. I could see her being somewhat a perfectionist, but not to the destructive extent that is shown here. Additionally, her “recovery” is tacked onto the end of the story just as cheaply as the illness is added in the first place. Apparently it only takes one fainting spell-induced trip to the hospital to get everything back on track. Somehow, that seems like a view through rose-colored glasses. If this has really been an issue since Beth was in middle school and she is now in her mid-twenties, I doubt two days is going to cure anything. Even the way this is portrayed makes Beth look like a complete people-pleaser with no will of her own.
One last thing that I really did not like, and then we’ll get to the positive aspects of this duology: the way Rev. March’s character is handled. In Little Women, he is a hero. Here, he’s a jerk who takes his family for granted, and again, there are no Christian morals brought into the equation. This is a minister for goodness sake, his faith is going to affect his thoughts, speech, and actions, or else he’s not going to last as a minister! In this version of the story, the concept that he is good at comforting others but never around for his own family is beat into the ground. It’s stated more times than I can count and demonstrated repeatedly. Unlike the other characters, Rev. March is an incredibly flat character. He does basically the same thing in every scene he is in except for the last, and that’s supposed to be some grand redemption arc. I don’t buy it, I don’t like it, and I’m honestly insulted by it. The author could have explored the impact that his frequent absences had on the family without making him out to be a villain. It’s no wonder the girls want nothing to do with church if he is the only picture of it that they have.
Okay, we’re through the things that I hated about these books. Let’s move on to the things that try to redeem it.
Despite taking unreasonable liberties with the characters, knowing that these books were intended to modernize one of my favorite books immediately endeared them to me to some degree (too bad they didn’t live up to my initial impression). It is comforting to recognize situations and know what should come next, but still have enough curiosity about how we’re going to get there. Also, sticking Jo in a kitchen in New York City and setting her up as a food blogger is genius. That aspect was wonderful to read – until she gets into a relationship with her boss. Similarly, seeing Amy as a fashion accessory designer was exciting. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with Amy and Laurie’s sudden relationship, so watching that develop firsthand and getting a view inside her mind was helpful. Even if I still don’t really like how they interact, there is definite character growth for Amy which isn’t often present in other adaptations or even the original. In fact, if I didn’t already feel like I knew these characters when I started the book, I likely would have liked the ways they grow and develop through the story. As it is, it feels like they drift farther from who they are supposed to be as we go. They are interesting people to read about, but not the characters I know and love.
The writing itself is wonderful. The chapters alternate perspective, and each is easy to slip into. As with LMA’s writing, the books invite you in. It doesn’t take long for the reader to feel as though they have a place at the farm, too, and a connection to each of the sisters. All the boxes on my personal preferences are ticked when it comes to the writing style, amount of description, and balance of drama and action. In the beginning I thought I was going to relate to the characters quite a bit, especially Jo with her blogging and effort to find a place to belong when the dreams she really wanted fell through the cracks and the secondary things that she liked but didn’t plan to pursue became her life. About halfway through Meg & Jo she says “Maybe I didn’t have the career I’d always dreamed of, but I was still living the life I’d chosen in the city I loved. At least for now.” That resonates with me so strongly. While it didn’t last, this stage of Jo’s life was compelling to read about. I’m sure there are readers who connect with other aspects or her sisters’ lives more, but I appreciated the acknowledgement that sometimes not getting what we want doesn’t mean settling, it just means readjusting. It isn’t comfortable, but it is worthwhile and not worth fearing.
If I were reading this entirely on its own merit and with no preconceived ideas about the characters or story, I likely would have rated it much higher. Despite my annoyance I was hooked. I read Beth & Amy in just under a week, which has been unheard of since I started grad school. The story remains heartwarming and compelling in its insistence that family is incredibly important and ought to be willing to work through the hard things to support one another – the books just lack the depth of Little Women. It could have been better served as a story of four sisters who are like the March sisters rather than being called a modernization. These are not the girls I grew up with, this is not the story I have loved, and I am conflicted about whether my enjoyment of the story that was told outweighs the feelings of betrayal. Meg & Jo was a bigger shock than Beth & Amy. For now, I’ve rated Meg & Jo 2.5 stars and Beth & Amy 3.5 stars, but after a little more time to digest I might amend that in Goodreads. Amy’s story is wonderful; Beth’s had potential but was poorly handled. Meg is understandable but disappointing; Jo is downright scandalous while being somehow oddly relatable. I recommend this duology to mature readers who enjoy contemporary women’s fiction, not necessarily fans of Little Women. Those who love the source material should go in with eyes open and be prepared to read about characters who share a name with those you know and love and some core characteristics, but are definitely not the same.
I hope that I have enunciated my thoughts well enough here for you to understand both my frustration and enjoyment of these books. They are not at all what I expected, and are a mixed bag overall. Like all books, they have their strengths and weaknesses. However, by alligning these books with a classic, they are automatically held to a higher standard. I believe my criticism to be fair although I eagerly admit my bias toward the original Little Women.
Do you like modernizations of classic books? Have you read any good ones that you would recommend?
Until the next chapter,
An interesting review, well explained. I don’t like modern retellings of classic novels, and have yet to find one I like. I don’t like films/ plays which put classic plays into different settings. Always begs the question why.
Thanks for sharing an honest and thorough review. From these things you mentioned, I can tell that I likely wouldn’t be much of a fan of these books. Even if they are alluring to my eyes. 🙂
I’m so glad you participated this month in the L.M.A. reading challenge. Thanks for reading along!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for hosting the challenge!! It’s always such fun, even if every book isn’t a new favorite. I hope you’re doing well!
I’m not sure if I’ll read this. I’ve read some retellings and most have disappointed. Maybe on this one, maybe not, but your review was nicely done and thorough.
LikeLiked by 1 person