"The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott" (Amy Einhorn/G.P. Putnam's Sons, 334 pages, $24.95), by Kelly O'Connor McNees: In "The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott," Kelly O'Connor McNees speculates on a summer of love that not only became a lifelong passion for Louisa May Alcott, but also fueled her writing.
Alcott, who never married and had no known love affairs, most famously wrote "Little Women," based on her family. An early feminist and abolitionist, she also wrote under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. Under that name, Alcott's works were passionate love stories and thrillers.
Which brings up the question: How did Alcott, who – in the terms of her time – was a spinster, learn about love? Was it all imagination? Or was there a hidden affair somewhere in her past?
McNees goes with the latter premise, setting the brief fling in the summer of 1855, when Alcott and her family were fending off starvation in Walpole, N.H.
McNees' young Alcott is determined to remain single and in charge of her life so she can write. She sees it not only as a consuming passion, but also as a way to save her impoverished family.
The family is desperately poor because Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist philosopher, considered it a breach of his beliefs to work. The family subsisted on borrowed money and an inheritance that Alcott's mother had received. Watching her mother struggle to follow her father's philosophy and take care of the family feeds Alcott's passion to remain unmarried.
"The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott" is McNees' first novel. It's a pleasant but extremely slow-paced book, with characters that aren't well fleshed out. The desires of Alcott's sisters are predictable – nice dresses, husbands and homes. All understandable for the time.
Alcott is pictured as someone with a quick temper, which flares repeatedly after she meets Joseph Singer, a clerk in one of the stores in the small town. In the tradition of romance, Singer infuriates her, until her feelings for him suddenly turn to love.
McNees is exceptionally discreet with the intimate details of the lovers' brief fling, and her picture is so stark, it's hard to believe it would invoke a lifelong passion, or the depth of pain Alcott experiences.
Alcott's fans will no doubt enjoy getting a glimpse of her life and family, which McNees has based on historical fact.