Biography fans will devour Louisa May Alcott, Susan Cheever’s briskly paced examination of the Little Women author, who died at age 55 in 1888. Even if Alcott’s background hadn’t included writing an enduring classic of American literature, her life would have made for a rollicking read. It’s an opportunity that Cheever does not squander.

In her short life, Alcott was neighbors with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (where she wrote Little Women), served as a nurse in the Civil War, worked as a teacher, seamstress and magazine editor, possibly inspired Henry James’ Daisy Miller and lived through America’s shift from an agricultural- to an industrial-based society.

Most of the drama in her life came from her large family—specifically from her father, Bronson, a principled, domineering education reformer who managed to wear out his welcome everywhere. The Alcotts were perpetually impecunious, and they relocated as if they were musicians on a never-ending tour. Alcott wrote for love and to get her family out of debt. Her generosity continued after the phenomenal success of Little Women: She wrote to provide security for her two fatherless nephews, and when her sister May passed away, she became the guardian of her infant niece.

Alcott’s closeness to her family was almost suffocating. Her relationship with Bronson was especially thorny. “But although she never spoke a word against her father, against his irresponsibility or his bullying or his prejudice against her, she took her revenge in a far more effective and literary way,” Cheever writes. “She left him out of her masterpiece.”

Cheever—who, as the daughter of John Cheever, is from a literary lineage herself—succeeds at eliciting emotion from the research and tying America’s changing cultural and political scene to Alcott’s own evolution as a writer and woman. Though she sometimes slows down the story’s momentum by venturing into first-person interludes and theorizing (was Alcott gay?), that doesn’t tarnish her vivid profile of a well-lived whirlwind of a life.

 

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