Do you have a favorite character in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women? Perhaps Jo, Amy, Beth or Meg. Here’s another looks at the March sisters from their mother’s point of view. Written as Marmee’s diary entries from late 1861 until December 1868, this heartfelt novel gives Marmee depth and a more fully developed personality, with her character based on that of Louisa May’s mother Abigail May Alcott, an abolitionist, suffragist, and activist. Imagine being, essentially, a single mother of four girls during the Civil War, struggling to make ends meet and worrying about your husband. Marmee looks back at her life to reveal the secret reason their social and financial circumstances changed. A friendship with the Hummel family becomes very meaningful to Marmee, as does her relationship with housekeeper Hannah. More satisfying than recent film adaptations while still a tearjerker at times, it’s a real pleasure to visit with the March family again. Readalikes include The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper, Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy, and Caroline: Little House, Revisited, also by Sarah Miller.
In this historical novel of female friendship set on the home front in England during World War II, three very different women become friends. One night fashion designer Cressida Westcott escapes her flat during a bombing raid, and loses both her home and nearby business in one night. Without a dress to her name, she leaves London for the Westcott manor she hasn’t visited in decades. Cressida is welcomed by her niece Violet and nephew Hugh, who’ve never met her. Violet is a socialite, ready to marry a man from the right sort of background, and reluctant to report for training for war work, even though she will be able to live at home while chauffeuring American officers. Dutiful Grace, daughter of the widowed vicar, visits parishioners and joins committees, and will soon marry another vicar, who likes but doesn’t love her. Her mother’s wedding gown needs repair, and the local sewing circle, now including Cressida, works to repair and alter the dress, which, unexpectedly, was made in Paris. With clothes rationing, women are having trouble even getting a new dress or dress fabric for their wedding, let alone a white gown. With Cressida’s help, the sewing circle begins to collect older wedding gowns, and starts an exchange to help women, especially those in the military, borrow an updated white wedding gown. The three women grow and change tremendously, with Violet making friends of all classes during her training while Grace learns to have fun again, and learns about dress design from Cressida. I enjoyed this engaging, uplifting novel. Readalikes include Ryan’s Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce, Until We Meet by Camille Di Maio (which uses the same photo on the book jacket), and The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester.
Jacqueline Bouvier, before she met JFK, spent her junior year of college in Paris. This well-researched biographical novel brings postwar Paris to life in rich detail. In 1949 and 1950, Paris is still very much in recovery mode. There is still some rationing, the food is not yet plentiful, and Jacqueline is often served soup by her host mother, Comtesse de Renty, along with bread and cheese. The apartment, shared with the Comtesse’s two daughters, young grandson and two other American students is also very cold, with the repairman unable to get parts for their heater.
Jacqueline’s family has connections in France, and she often spends weekends in the countryside, riding horses. Gradually, Jacqueline learns more about the sacrifices and suffering of the Parisians during the war, and has a political awakening as well. Described as intelligent, introverted, observant, and a bit naïve, she is also charming. Her first serious romance does not go smoothly, but she learns much from the relationship. Author Mah walks a fine, smooth line between biography and fiction, making this novel a sure bet for fans of historical fiction or Francophiles.
A companion novel to Liardet’s 2019 debut, We Must Be Brave, this covers three different times in vicar James Acton’s life. As a young pilot in the Second World War, he meets his future wife Yvette in Alexandria, Egypt. The war separates them, and then they marry after the war and settle near Liverpool in a poor parish. A pregnancy loss early in their marriage threaten to divide them again, and James doesn’t care where Yvette finds support on her long drives in the country. Later Yvette keeps a diary before her death in the 1960s. In 1974, with son Tom a college student, James moves to a new parish in Upton, where he has a leaky roof, a study full of the last vicar’s papers, and a crisis of faith. Tom and James quarrel over Yvette’s diaries, then James starts meeting people who knew Yvette. Not as sad as We Must Be Brave, with a puppy and Tom providing comic relief, and a stern archbishop providing unexpected support, the plot keeps the reader guessing in this compelling read. The Alexandria setting is unfamiliar and has links to the author’s family. I also enjoyed the English countryside setting and the scenes of daily life of a 1970s English vicar.
This historical novel is based on the remarkable life of Black fashion designer Ann Lowe. Fourth in a family line of dressmakers, Ann was born in Alabama in 1898. Her grandmother was born a slave. Ann was designing and making fabric flowers as a young girl, and she finished a commission to make four dresses for Alabama’s first lady at 16, after her mother died.
Married extremely young, Ann had one son. Discovered by a Tampa socialite, Ann and young Arthur lived with the family in Tampa, where she designed and made dresses for the family. At their suggestion, Ann studied at a design school in New York City, where she wasn’t allowed to sit in a classroom with the white students. Racism also hampered her ability to open a dress shop in the south near where her wealthy clients lived. Later, Ann designed dresses in New York City for the rich and famous, sometimes in her own shop and sometimes in a department store, struggling with finances, her eyesight, and especially, for recognition of her talents. Among Ann’s notable designs were the gown Olivia de Havilland wore to the Academy Awards when she won an Oscar, and Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding gown, which had to be made twice.
A compelling read, well researched, and with a good sense of time and place. A moving and thought-provoking novel about an extremely talented artist; well worth considering for book groups. Readalikes include The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson and The Gown by Jennifer Robson.
Ward Bennett spent the summer of 1938 working on a dude ranch near Reno, Nevada. The Flying Leap catered to wealthy women who spent six weeks living there, then got a no-fuss divorce in Reno. Handsome cowboys Ward and Sam chauffeured the ladies to and from Reno, served meals, took care of the horses, and guided the ladies on trail rides. Max and Margaret hired the men for their good manners and their looks. When Emily drove cross-country to Reno and Nina flew her plane there, the folks at the Flying Leap know they’re in for an eventful summer. Both amusing and dramatic, this character-focused historical novel was inspired by both of the author’s parents, and is an engaging and memorable read.
Elizabeth Zott, a chemist in the 1950s and early 1960s, struggles against rampant sexism with men who think women can’t be intelligent. At the Hastings Institute in southern California, Elizabeth meets another brilliant chemist, Calvin Evans, who also enjoys rowing. When a female coworker spreads gossip that costs Elizabeth her job, Elizabeth turns her kitchen into a chemistry lab while raising her young daughter with the help of neighbor Harriet and a loyal, intelligent dog until she unexpectedly lands a job in daytime television. Walter Pine, a fellow single parent, hires Elizabeth to host Supper at Six, where she combines cooking and chemistry while also affirming women, and becomes a surprise hit. This engaging debut, the top Library Reads pick for April, will appeal to readers who enjoy strong female characters who overcome major obstacles. Readalikes include Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.
In the early 1900s, Edwin is exiled by his wealthy British family, and is walking in the woods in western Canada when he hears the music of a violin and what turns out to the the noise of an airship terminal. Set partly on the Moon, this intriguing, challenging, and rewarding novel moves through time and space, exploring the importance of art and connection, and playing around with the nature of reality. Best known for Station Eleven (a current television miniseries and an earlier book group selection) and The Glass Hotel, this book includes character from a couple of her novels. We also meet Olive, a novelist from the Moon who is on a book tour on Earth when a pandemic begins in 2203, and Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in 2401 who is sent back in time for an investigation that includes an airship terminal. Mandel beautifully weaves together the different scenes and themes, without quite resolving all the plotlines. Hard to put down and difficult to describe, likely to be very popular when published in early April.
Perfect armchair travel reading for mystery readers; this is the sequel to Death of an Eye, but can be read on its own. Set in Alexandria, Egypt in 47 BC, Cleopatra is a secondary character. Tetisheri, partner in a trading company with her uncle, is occasionally needed to investigate mysteries for the Queen. The city, including the famous Library, docks, and a gymnasium, are vividly described. The city is in a rebuilding phase and there is plenty of traffic, noise, and occasionally, cement. After the body of a missing scribe is found in the Middle Sea, Tetisheri gets involved, and looks for a connection to rare books going missing from the Library. When a messenger boy helps her escape a dangerous situation, Tetisheri invites the boys and his friends to work for her, while wondering how she’ll get reimbursed. This is a witty, humorous, colorful, and exciting mystery. I look forward to another visit with Tetisheri in Alexandria.
Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.