Louisa May Alcott became famous for her well-loved classic, Little Women, but her success as an author did not happen overnight. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, a bittersweet, stirring debut novel byKelly O’Connor McNees, explores the possibility that Alcott, who wrote so passionately about romantic relationships, did in fact have an affair of her own and that her success as a novelist came at a high price.
The novel was sparked by a quote from Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne and neighbor of the Alcotts, who speculated that Alcott could not have written so compellingly about romantic love in her novels had she not experienced it herself. “Did she ever have a love affair?” Hawthorne asked. “We never knew. Yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it?” McNees speculates that Alcott burned many of her letters not only to protect her privacy, but to “erase all traces” of her love affair.
Deftly blending fact and fiction, McNees imagines an affair that could have taken place during the summer Alcott and her family spent in Wolcott, New Hampshire in 1855—one that would have threatened Alcott’s writing career and perhaps inspired the story of Jo and Laurie in Little Women.
Alcott’s father’s transcendentalist friends, Emerson and Thoreau, influenced her childhood, but his philosophical beliefs brought the family to the brink of financial ruin—motivating Alcott to earn a living as a writer and be free from her family’s financial struggles.
Alcott is initially unmoved by Joseph Singer, her fictional lover who owns a dry goods store in town, until he gives her a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Swept up in a passionate love affair once he makes his feelings clear, she discovers a devastating truth that may prevent the lovers from marrying. Soon after, Alcott makes a difficult choice that will forever change the course of the lovers’ lives.
The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott reverberates from a time when women’s options were few. Alcott’s yearning to be a writer and an independent woman made her an anomaly in her day, when the prospect of marriage to a man of means was considered de rigeur. Even if readers have never read Little Women, they will enjoy this historical novel—a compelling, heart-wrenching story about the difficult choices women face. It resonates with themes that are as timely today as they were in Alcott’s day.
Read our interview with Kelly O'Connor McNees about The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
Read our review of Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott biography
Watch the trailer for the novel