A review of Virginia Kantra’s contemporary retelling of Little Women.
In North Carolina author Virginia Kantra’s modern novel inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, she focuses on the relationship between sisters Meg and Jo, allowing these dynamics to play out in the context of both of their relationships with the rest of the March family.
Jo, in her late twenties, has left her hometown of Bunyan, North Carolina, hoping for a glamorous life in New York City. After getting her MFA in Writing, and having worked in journalism for a while, before being let go, Jo is working at a restaurant while secretly also at work on her food blog, “Hungry.”
Meg, on the other hand, after finishing college, gets married and soon has two children. Seemingly at happy places in their lives, both are also distant from each other, dealing with their own emotional struggles and attempting to leave behind complicated family histories.
At the start of Meg & Jo, the primary conflict stems from the sister’s mother falling ill, and Meg, the only sister living in Bunyan, having to shoulder the burden of caring and worrying about their mother (since their father is much more focused on his work with veterans). Jo, on hearing her mother is ill, flies back from New York, leaving her boyfriend, the chef she works for, Erik Bhaer. On arriving in Bunyan, she also encounters Trey, the boy-next-door she grew up with. This complicates her love life, since he thinks they should try to have a romantic relationship, but Jo does not necessarily reciprocate his feelings.
Meg and Jo’s relationship grows closer amid the increasing tensions with their father and his refusal to prioritize their mother’s case over his work, and the absence of younger sisters Beth and Amy, who are both in different places due to unique opportunities.
The most compelling aspect of the novel is its ability to weave together Alcott’s original, adapt it to contemporary events and bring Meg and Jo’s relationship into the 21st century. The relationship of the two sisters is tied directly to the complicated family dynamics Jo left behind when she moved, and this progression of the relationship from sisters with drastically different lives to sisters who understand where the other is coming from— and consistently make each other a priority— is what makes the novel so engaging. Both sisters come to terms with their personal conflicts and tensions in order to better engage with each other in a time already fraught with difficulty.
Kantra’s shift between first-person point of view in alternating chapters about Meg and Jo adds to the progression of this, since it allows the audience to grow with Meg and Jo, but in different ways. They grow as adults in the 21st century, in similar ways to how this same audience may have grown up with Alcott’s beloved Little Women.
Meg & Jo is a must-read for anyone who grew up with Little Women and is a complex exploration of the power of time, place and identity.
Meg & Jo is on our Fall/Winter Reading List for 2019-2020 and available Dec. 3.