Book review: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

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Anyone brought up on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women books will consider them a hard, if not impossible, act to follow.

So full marks to Gabrielle Donnelly for daring – and succeeding so well – in bringing back to life not just the March sisters but their spirit and special warmth which have made them beloved by generations of women.

For the uninitiated, the stories of the Marches, a family that loses its wealth but instead gains love and unity, were set and written in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

At the heart of these classic tales are three sisters from Massachusetts, all very different but all facing the challenge of growing up in straitened circumstances and who have to cope with the death of a fourth, adored sister.

Donnelly, a self-confessed Alcott fan, transports us to north London where the three Atwater sisters, a branch of Jo March’s descendants, are living a typically chaotic and gregarious 21st century existence.

Eldest sister Emma is a model daughter – beautiful, tidy, totally organised, holds down a steady job and is engaged to sensible Matthew.

Middle sister is Lulu – prickly, untidy, stalks through life challenging conventions and confounding expectations and can’t seem to settle into a ‘proper’ job.

Emma is a ‘peaches and cream’ kind of girl, Lulu more ‘peppery curry, full of spices and unexpected flavours.’

Last but not least is up-and-coming actress Sophie, a delectable drama queen with butter yellow hair, huge blue eyes and a cheeky humour that knocks men for six.

The girls bicker, trade insults, constantly rub each other up the wrong way, have the world at their feet and would appear to lead lives a million light years away from their ancestors in 19th century Massachusetts.

Lulu, in particular, feels she has lost all sense of direction... until she stumbles across great great grandma Jo’s letters gathering dust in the attic.

The window into the lives and characters of the March girls reveals a dark family secret but Lulu finds a soul sister in the feisty Jo whose words reach out to her across the centuries with unexpected comfort and guidance.

Perhaps family is all that really matters and sisters are not just tiresome siblings but the closest friends you will ever find...

Using timeless themes and emotions, The Little Women Letters cleverly harnesses the essence of the incomparable Jo March and uses her inspiration and wisdom to inform a new generation of sisters.

The unique ethos of the original books remains intact but the seeds of homespun warmth and charm that they sowed take comfortable root in a fresh and contemporary setting.

A funny, gentle and entertaining story which allows the past to inform the present...

(Penguin, paperback, £6.99)