Readings: Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante & The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

[[[ Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante]]]

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlanteMuch has been written and relentlessly speculated about the life of Louisa May Alcott since the publication and runaway success of Little Women in 1868. A great deal of weight has been given to the role and influence of her lightning rod father, Bronson Alcott,  as well as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other  notable Transcendentalists on her writing topics and career motivations. Little has been said about her mother, Abigail, as an equally, if not more important, role in Louisa’s life and work. LaPlante, a descendant of Alcott’s, attempts to make that case with her biographical history, Marmee and Louisa. The Marmee in the title is key, as it’s a significant reason LaPlante feels that curiosity about Abigail’s personal life and influence is limited and largely comfortably ignored. Both historians and readers feel they have a clear grasp on her role – the character Marmee has made the real woman, Abigail Alcott, all but invisible.

The result of LaPlante’s undertaking is an informative and engaging biography, but so little of Abigail has been preserved through her actual words and letters, that it’s difficult to further that premise with strong conviction. Marmee and Louisa reads more like a history of Abigail’s (historically significant) family, her relationship with her husband, the family’s struggle with poverty and Bronson’s baffling approach to raising and providing for a family. LaPlante gives a detailed account of Abigail Alcott’s affluent family and upbringing, well-connected relatives, their financial fortunes,  and how setbacks were endured and overcome – concentrating on the effect that all of this had on Abigail. Her relationship with Louisa seems loving but also incidental to the shared history of the family. Marmee and Louisa is a fascinating biography of a woman, and indeed a family, whose words and deeds were beyond the times in which they lived.

Thoughts on the audio: I read Marmee and Louisa and then listened to it on audio. It was narrated by Karen White, and she does an excellent job managing the flow of a wealth of information. Many locations were mentioned, the relatives had similar names, and their connections and intermarriages were dense. White’s distinct narration acted as a  clarifier of the information presented, and in a book filled with Bronson Alcott’s shenanigans, her reading was also fair and largely unbiased toward any of those mentioned. Both the book and its audio are worthy choices, and not to be missed by those already interested or wanting to learn  more about Abigail, Louisa  and the Alcott family, and women’s history in the United States surrounding the civil war. Recommended.

[[[The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan]]]

Cathy Marie Buchanan captivated me with her first novel, The Day The Falls Stood Still, so I had high expectations for herThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan Book Cover, dancing girls, degas follow-up novel [[[The Painted Girls]]]. I wasn’t disappointed. She chooses a fascinating angle for her novel of two sisters growing up in the desperate poverty of 19th century Paris.

There are three Van Goethem sisters, but Buchanan’s narrative alternates between the perspectives of the book smart Marie, who after being pulled from school after the death of their debt-ridden father, dutifully applies herself to the arduous training of a ballet dancer  as a way to contribute to the family’s  meager earnings, and Antoinette, the eldest of the girls. Antoinette does her best to protect her sisters from life’s harsh realities even as her own troubled romance and unrelenting deprivation force her to contemplate thievery and prostitution. Marie eventually gets a position posing for Degas, a rising artist of the time, and Antoinette finds work in the cast of a popular Zola adaptation. Both artist and writer are exploring the role of criminality and society through their works and are heavily influenced by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, a man who posits that destiny is determined by facial structure, and heavy animal like features are indicative of criminality and vice – features Marie fretfully worries over in her own face.

Buchanan is a skilled weaver of history into the realities of everyday life and she outdoes herself here. Paris, that famed City of Light, comes to life vividly through the smells on the streets, the meanness of its people, the filth of their clothes and the desperation of their toil. It is clear that girls have it worse, and the Van Goethem sisters embody how few the choices and opportunities available to women who would try to better their circumstances or to merely escape their poverty – the cost often being their innocence and respectability. Buchanan excels at showcasing the girl’s distinctive personalities, voice, and approach to life. Each of their narratives are both compelling and heartbreaking and as close as if either of them was whispering her story in your ear. The Painted Girl has elements of mystery – a rash of  gruesome murders has been committed, and the unease of the city is palpable – but mostly it is an exquisitely rendered love story between these sisters, and the sacrifices they make to ease each others burdens while striving to better their lives in a world where the odds are highly stacked against them. Highly Recommended.

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  1. I’ve seen The Painted Girls around, your positive review has made me decide to add it to the wishlist 🙂
    Marmee and Me sounds interesting too, it’s a shame there is so little in the way of primary sources.

    1. It is. They destroyed her letters and a lot of then during time when they would have been interesting – like her struggles with Bronson. It was a tumultuous relationship but he survived her and basically edited out the really bad stuff she might have had to say about him.

  2. I’m pretty excited to read The Painted Girls…I’ve got a copy coming my way soon. It is fun how that kind of dovetails with The Art Forger, which is also about Degas.

    1. Degas is a pretty interesting character. You get to know him a little bit more in The Painted Girls. It has been fun to see him popping up all over the place.

  3. I’m extremely interested in both novels and almost picked up The Painted Girls over the weekend – it was briefly in my greedy little hands! I love learning about authors and their families, backgrounds, etc – especially someone as prolific as Louisa May Alcott. I actually ended up buying a copy of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and I’m highly looking forward to diving into that story. I’ve heard they are making a movie, but not entirely certain.

      1. I swear someone in my book group mentioned this little tidbit, but now I can’t find anything to support it. Probably just wishful thinking…sadness.

    1. Brooke, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is very good. I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up, but as far as I know it’s not being made into a movie. It’s one I’d love to see if they are.

      1. Hi, all! Have to chime in on this. I loved this biography of A. Alcott and was very fortunate to be asked to review it for the Washington Post.

        So much of biography is speculation, Nicole–I do agree about that. I think especially with women’s lives we can only speculate because their words were not preserved, or were destroyed in the interest of “protecting” them. Still, there is a lot to go on here.

        As for a film based on The Lost Summer, I still have my fingers crossed but haven’t heard anything. Unless you all know something I don’t!

        Finally, I CANNOT wait to read The Painted Girls. Small baby = hardly any reading time. But I am clawing my way back. Thanks for a great discussion!

  4. I’ve read Marmee & Louisa and found it very compelling. I disagree that there wasn’t enough of Abigail’s own writings to substantiate LaPlante’s claims. It’s really a matter of quantity versus quality: there are probably ten times the amount of papers available to study in Bronson Alcott’s hand but his writing is incoherent. Abba’s is powerful, concise, passionate and the tone of those writings is what speaks so clearly to me about the strength of her personality.

    I would recommend reading the companion volume, “My Heart is Boundless,” a collection of Abba’s writings edited by LaPlante. Here is where you hear Abba’s voice unfiltered.

    I commend Karen White on reading with an unbiased voice through Marmee & Louisa considering the way Bronson was portrayed! I don’t fault LaPlante for portraying Abba in the more favorable light as that was part of the point of the book. But for a balanced approached, a reading of John Matteson’s excellent “Eden’s Outcasts The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father” is recommended to get both sides of the story.

    Love ’em both! 🙂

    I blog regularly about Louisa May Alcott if you’d like to visit at

    1. That could be the case, but mainly the book was more a biography of Abigail, and there were quite a few places where LaPlante mentions that letters detailing her thoughts were not available/had been destroyed or she didn’t have Abigail’s response to the situation she’s mentioning. The book was compelling. I think you would be hard pressed to find a book on the Alcott’s that isn’t, but based on the dynamics it’s also hard not to have a book that is mostly in response to Bronson. His writing may not be that articulate but his presence is larger than life. Most of how the entire family behaved was in response to him. The book just seemed more about the entire family, rather than the focus of the title or LaPlante’s opening remarks. It’s still very good.

  5. Thank you, Nicole. As you might imagine, it a little nerve- racking to have one’s supporters read her new work. So glad you admired The Painted Girls. I particularly love this bit: “an exquisitely rendered love story between these sisters, and the sacrifices they make to ease each others burdens while striving to better their lives in a world.”