Wednesday, June 22, 2011

March by Geraldine Brooks

March by Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that gives the back story for the absent father from Little Women, imaging how he met “Marmee” and came to serve in the Union army.

I am not a Little Women purist by a long shot and after re-reading it recently, I thought it was about time I read this novel.  I have to say that I think Brooks’s novel is old fashioned in the same way that Alcott’s novel is.  While not nearly as archaic in tone nor as preachy, it is reads more like a traditional historical romance than anything else.

Uh oh.  Did I say “romance,” which we know is typically a kiss of death for yours truly?  Yes.  Yes I did.  The author certainly takes certain liberties with the character and eagerly shares more than a surface characterization, relishing the opportunity to strip them all down to their most flawed.  For better or worse, this novel may be inspired by the classic but definitely strives not to be traditional.

I can’t say that I necessarily liked some of the things Brooks decided to do with the story.  The elements that seem most old-fashioned, such as coincidences that seem entirely too convenient, define one type of novel but then she flaunts other traditions, picking and choosing what she thinks should work and discarding the rest.  I don’t know that she has honored the intent of the novel as much as I had hoped she would.

Brooks manages to create very interesting characters and if one can divorce them from the original and not try to elevate this novel above much more than a romance novel then it is quite effective.  March and Marmee certainly seem more human in this novel than they do in Little Women.  And minor characters, like Grace Clement and Ethan Canning, are well-rounded which is a testament to the author’s ability to create truly interesting characters.  The juxtaposition of his letters home, which gloss over the most brutal realities, and his actual experiences is obviously meant to be a pronouncement against war.

Personally, I never fully engaged emotionally with anything that was happening on the page.  March’s spiritual conflict and how he tries to protect his family seem to be more told than realized and the guilt he embraces for choices he makes are too stereotypical to really introduce anything new to the discussion of how war traumatizes and destroys the individual.  And I appreciate how Brooks weaves in many of the historical figures of the time but I don’t know that any of them are so relevant that the book wouldn’t have been just as powerful without their presence.  Albeit, I appreciate her explanation for how the March family went from being financially comfortable to struggling, something that is mentioned in Little Women but never explained.

Is this a good book?  Yeah.  Sure.  I guess.  I think if I liked the romance formula more I would like this novel more.  Is it worthy of a Pulitzer Prize?  I don’t think so but my opinion doesn’t determine who will and will not receive it.  Obviously.
Because there is some content within my reviews that is bound to contain spoilers, I have decided to post-date (by a decade) a continuation of reviews for those who have already read a book or are not concerned with spoilers.  These will be linked at the bottom of the review and you can choose to click them or not.
Here Be Spoilers

(Aside:  This book is included in my list of Books I Should Have Read By Now because I gave this book as a gift to the receptionist at one of my jobs.  She was a huge fan of Little Women and I was eager to thank her for the wonderful work she did and her ever pleasant attitude.  When I gave it to her I said, "You'll have to tell me if you like it and let me borrow it when you're done because I'm dying to read it."  That was back in 2005 and she never did lend me the book so here I am, six years later, finally getting around to reading it.)

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this book - I read it before re-reading Little Women which I hadn't read since I was a girl. So I think I had a different vantage point on it. I thought the portrayal of Marmee was pretty neat in that she wasn't all the perfection she was drawn to be in the original. Life wasn't all roses and lollipops in this one. I honestly never really thought of it as a romance - though there was plenty there. It was a stark contrast in style to the work that inspired this one. Also, having visited the Alcott home and learned about the real family, this account was highly fictionalized. Entertaining and an interesting way to delve into some history.

    -Molly

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  2. I appreciated the back story Brooks created for how the March family went from affluence to financially struggling. And I definitely appreciated Marmee being less idealized. I definitely appreciate the fact that she didn't try to make it sound like Alcott's novel. I didn't dislike Little Women by any means but literature has come a long way and I doubt I would have enjoyed even a great attempt at mimicry.

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