From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has animated the character of the absent father, March. Brooks follows March as he leaves behind his family to aid the Union cause in the Civil War. His experiences will utterly change his marriage and challenge his most ardently held beliefs.
My take: 3 looks; no, make that 2 looks
First let me say that I really struggled with giving this one three looks. After all, there are many, many better books, in my opinion, which have also received three looks from me. However, it wasn't really a stinker, so I didn't want to give it two looks.
With this review, I am going to go Clint Eastwood on you.
Brooks' writing is beautiful. Her way with words, sentence structure and vocabulary is stunning. The flow of the story, details in the action, insight into the characters ... it is all very satisfying. Here are two quotes I loved:
"A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what the war has broken apart."
"How easy it was to give out morsels of wise counsel, and yet how hard to act on them."
This, in my mind, is not great story-telling. The premise of giving us a look at a character on the periphery of one of history's best-loved books is brilliant. Since the characters in Alcott's "Little Women" are patterned on real people, it makes sense that Brooks would use the Alcott patriarch as a guide. However, he was so irritating that I could not help but be disappointed. I will get to that in a moment.
I would like to talk about Grace. I appreciate that Grace was taught to read, but I hardly think Brooks' license to present this house slave as regal and educated was realistic. And not just educated by her mistress; Grace sounded matriculated! I am sure she could have had some presence, but to say to Mrs. March, "He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward," almost made the laugh out loud. It was not in the least credible.
When an author loses credibility in one area, and to this extent, it starts to unravel in other places.
If Brooks' goal was to have her reader come to despise Mr. March, she was 100% successful with me. A yellow-bellied, loquacious, pretentious, selfish milquetoast is how I saw him. I became so disgusted with his whining about not doing anything important that I almost wished the fever would take him. He went to war on an impulse, the men with whom he served hated him, and he fled almost every time he had the chance. He was so high on his self-righteous horse that he couldn't see what a hindrance he was to almost everything. The fact that he was able to secure supplies for the "contraband" Negros on the plantation was of little saving grace. Especially when he was instrumental in getting most of them later killed.
His family was destitute because of him, his wife's heart was broken because of him, Beth probably inherited her weak constitution from him, and on and on.
This is the second Pulitzer Prize winning book that I have read and disliked (see my review of Jennifer Egan's The Goon Squad). As a matter of fact, the more I ruminate over March, the more apt I am to change my review to 2 looks. Yes, I think I will.
However, I will read others by Geraldine Brooks. Her "People of the Book" alone is reason to read more. And while I can't recommend "March", I highly recommend you read her other titles.