Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux is a wonderful look at Louisa May Alcott’s novel, including its context, history, meaning, contemporary significance, and more. I loved Little Women and read it multiple times as a kid and teenager (and should read it again as an adult), so Rioux’s book was particularly fun for me, although I think anyone who is interested in literary history would get a lot out of it even if they weren’t an Alcott fan. It’s not a terribly long book — less than 300 pages — but it packs a ton in. Rioux gives a biographical sketch of the Alcott family in the first section, and then moves on to the writing and reception of the novel; adaptations of the story, including theater and film versions; academic and critical debates about interpretations of the novel, particularly about its relationship to feminism; its influence on literature and on culture more broadly; and its place in culture today.
I particularly liked Rioux’s discussions about why Little Women isn’t taught often in literature courses — she argues convincingly that it should be — and I loved her chapter, “Can Boys Read Little Women?” where she talks about the gendered treatment of the novel and also the many boys who have read and loved the book. She gets into how concerns about boys not reading have led teachers to assign books aimed at boys and to assume that girls will be able to read the “boys'” books just fine. This leaves little room for boys to learn to see the world from a girl’s perspective and even less room for encouraging anyone to read a book like Little Women.
Rioux covers a lot of ground, and she covers it very well: this is an entertaining, informative, elegant look at one of the most influential books in American literary history.