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Becky’s Book Reviews: 158. Great or Nothing

Great or Nothing. Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, and Jessica Spotswood. 2022. 400 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: There was a moment in each day where she forgot. It never came at the same time; if it had, perhaps then Jo could have been prepared for it. But how could you prepare for forgetting, just for a moment, that what once was a quartet had been reduced to a trio? There was no rhyme or reason to the moments she stumbled. 

Premise/plot: Four authors have teamed up to spin a retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This retelling is set during World War II. It opens AFTER Beth’s death. Amy, the youngest, is seemingly at art school [not really!], Jo is off working at a factory, and Meg is teaching at the local school. The sisters aren’t really in the best place. Jo, in particular, is choosing not to speak with any of her sisters–in particular, Meg, or her mother. She is still dazed [hurt, confused, out of sorts] by Laurie’s most unwelcome proposal. [How dare he?!?!?!] And she does not want to stay at home missing Beth. None of the girls do, not really. Meg stays because she loves teaching, loves her mother, and I think she’s wise enough to know that no matter where she goes she’ll always be missing Beth, still worried about the war. In alternating chapters, the story comes together. It is a coming of age story for all three. Don’t let Meg staying at home fool you, she is still living life. She’s not a “nobody” because she chooses to stay at home. 

Beth, though deceased, is still holding the family–and this book!!!–together. Her sections are told in verse. 

My thoughts:  My curiosity was very high. A World War II retelling?!?!?! I loved the premise of these young women coming of age during this time period! It seemed to me to make absolute perfect sense that Jo would, of course, be doing her part and getting work at a factory. Meg as a teacher, likewise, felt right. [Meg doesn’t always get the love and appreciation she deserves.] Amy is VERY Amy. I was going to not spoil it, but, since the book description says it clearly–well, so will I. Amy has “stolen” the identity of another applicant and is a Red Cross volunteer in London. Conveniently located to bump into the dreamy Laurie. 

Though I’m normally not a fan of alternating narrators, I ABSOLUTELY LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it in this one. I didn’t love all the narrators perfectly equally–I didn’t. [But that is perhaps to be expected. I feel the same way with the source material.] Beth’s poems made the novel for me. I loved them oh-so-much. In one of the Marvel movies–I think the second Spider-man movies–Peter Parker is gifted these awesome glasses with the acronym E.D.I.T.H which stands for EVEN DEAD, I’M THE HERO. And such is the case with Beth and her poetry. For me at least.

As for Jo being queer, I think this is one of many [yes, many] ways her character could be interpreted. I don’t have a problem necessarily having it as one of a handful, one of many, “a” possible interpretation or reading of the character. It is when it becomes the predominant “of course” this is the “best” way to read, to interpret, to understand the character that I get slightly annoyed. Like the only “reasonable” or “conclusive” reason why she would reject Laurie’s proposal is because she’s lesbian. I can think of hundreds of reasons [slight exaggeration] why these two are NOT a good match. We don’t all have to come to the same agreement, same conclusion.

Quotes:

Practice

I spoke to my dolls,
dressed the, brushed
their hair,
sat them up for stories
and laid them down for
bed,
long after my sisters
had given up their dolls.
I took in stray creatures,
stayed up nursing
kittens,
fed them with bottles
like I’d never feed
an infant.
Not my own.
It wasn’t practice
since I’d never play the role.
Not everyone can be a
mother.

The Fireplace

The mantel
above our fireplace
was always crowded
as a train platform
just as the train arrives.
Photos and trinkets,
books and flowers,
an entire family hsitory
on one narrow shelf of brick.
Such a stark contrast,
the mantel at Aunt March’s.
A showy vase, some
candlesticks.
I never saw them lit.
I sometimes wonder, had I lived,
would I have ended up alone?
Perhaps she’d leave me
the house,
for you all would have
had other lives to live.
But if she had, I would
have filled
that barren mantel with
my own platform
of travelers with their
joys and sorrows, busy
lives,
Photos, trinkets,
mementos from my
sisters
and their families, my
family too.

Falling

It’s a little like falling in
love, dying.
At least, I think so.
I’ve only done one of
those things.
The more you fight it, the
harder it is.
Some parts are bound to
be painful.
It’s messier than you
expect.
You have to give up
control.
But you end up
somewhere
you never could have
imagined.

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky’s Book Reviews


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