Least Favourite Book: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

While I found it really difficult to decide on my favourite book (they’re all so brilliant!) from the collection I have amassed for well over a decade, choosing my least favourite book was possibly harder. My bookshelf encompasses literature that I adore – the first editions, the hardbacks, the signed copies – the books that make me love writing more and more every time I read them. They are the books that make life a little easier, by putting distance between me and the bustling, crazy world for just a little while. I already know my favourites, easily identified by the worn spines, the many bookmarks pocketed between their pages, and the familiar covers.

The books I dislike, however, have somehow magically managed to fade into darkness. They no longer loom on my shelves, half-finished, with the price tag still on the front. They have sunk deep into oblivion, with little hope of return. Selecting a favourite book was a mere matter of choice. Picking a least favourite has forced my mind to swim through murky memories of “Who edited this and left these grammar mistakes?!” and “How did this get published?!”, of which, thankfully, I have only a few.

There is a clear difference between abhorring a book for its subject matter (which I will discuss in later posts) and loathing a book for the dodgy writing within it. It is the latter that is the focus of this particular post, with the culprit being the novel The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly (2011).

‘The Little Women Letters’ by Gabrielle Donnelly (image from chicklitreviews.com)

I personally am not a passionate fan of the original Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, although I have read and enjoyed it. Stuck at the airport early this summer, I was browsing the Fiction section and happened upon the newly published sequel. Raising my eyebrows, I knew how much pressure Donnelly would be under in order to live up to the expectations of the diehard Alcott fan. I mean, you’d really only write a follow-up book to Little Women if you really knew what you were doing. Donnelly flails about trying to do justice to Alcott’s creation, which results in an exaggerated attempt at the production of an authentic sounding voice when she writes from the perspective of Alcott’s famous character Jo: “Bless the infant, she is the reddest and the squallingest baby you ever did see!”

While I am putting this down to nervousness on Donnelly’s part in following the renowned Alcott’s footsteps, her terribly prolonged protagonist descriptions worsen the situation. She dedicates entire paragraphs to each character and their blow-by-blow summary as she introduces them to the reader one after the other, providing information she could easily have popped into another part of the novel, or cut altogether. “[The character of Emma] wore well-cut trousers for work, and for leisure jeans in the winter or flowery skirts in the summer, which she topped with shirts from Zara or Whistles.” At no point in the book does the fact that Emma shops in ‘Zara’ become a major plot point, I hasten to add. It doesn’t really enhance Emma’s character at all. It merely feels like Donnelly needed more content for her word count.

The Pressures of Writing

Donnelly is also guilty of ignoring the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule that pretty much every author knows is part of learning how to produce great writing. At one point in the novel, she states, “Fee and David Atwater were a happy couple” (and she continues in this same vein for another paragraph, of which I have quoted only a snippet here): “Both agreed that the space his travels put between them did their marriage good. Whatever the cause, their marriage was a strong one”. The end of this tirade, however, reveals their contented relationship to the reader with one little action: “After nearly thirty years of marriage, [they] still reached, almost unconsciously, for each other’s hand when they walked down the street.” That wonderfully composed sentence makes me want to shake the editor for not taking out the rest of the paragraph!

Donnelly certainly has her writing strengths: dialogue seems to be where she shines most and it is this device that she employs throughout The Little Women Letters to divulge more of the characters’ personalities. “‘Are you sure you want her there? She’ll complain about London, and make comments about Lulu’s hair, and get that disapproving look when Lulu and Sophie start to crack jokes.'” Donnelly does saturate the book in dialogue, but it really is one of the novel’s redeeming attributes in the context of the writing quality.

The respect that she has for Alcott is undeniable, but, in my opinion, Donnelly fails to provide a worthy tribute to the classic and immortal tale of the four young girls from Little Women.

‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, first published in 1868

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