While Louisa May Alcott's most famous work, Little Women, is closely based on her own family, it's not memoir, and there are portions of the author's life that aren't well-documented or deeply explored in the various biographies. Kelly O'Connor McNees uses one of those gaps as the stage for her historical/speculative novel, suggesting what could have come to pass between Louisa Alcott and one young man in a small New Hampshire town during the summer and autumn of 1855.
I found McNees' writing compatible with the style of the period, but not so old-fashioned as to be challenging to a modern reader. Her story unfolds in a leisurely manner, rich in details, and I was fully absorbed by it. Her suggestion that Louisa loved and lost is plausible, and Joseph Singer is credible as the object of her affections. As befitting the era of the novel - a time when public behavior was very different - McNees effectively evokes the sense of attraction and tension resulting from eyes meeting and gloved fingers touching, and I particularly appreciated the way she accomplished that. She also describes quite clearly just how hard women worked back before women 'went to work,' particularly when their families were impoverished. Keeping house was a full-time task when all tasks were done by hand, and when the head of the household was reluctant to act as a provider - as was Louisa's father, Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott, who valued the life of the mind far more than money - there was an even greater need to 'make do' at home, or else to humbly accept the assistance of family and friends.
Throughout the novel, Louisa Alcott struggles with her ideas about the nature of relationships and marriage, and weighs them against her strong drive to create, work hard, and be responsible to herself, concluding over and over again that she cannot have both and live the life she truly wants. The career/family debate is one of the issues at the core of feminism, and apparently it's been going on for a couple of centuries; and despite modern women's efforts to balance it all, it still seems to come down to one over the other all too often. I've considered Louisa May Alcott an early feminist icon for much of my life, but this novel makes me wonder how much more of an icon she might be if she had been able to have a family alongside her writing career.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is an engaging debut novel with appeal for fans of domestic novels, historical fiction, and women's history.