"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott has been undervalued for most of its history. This book is a true American Classic. Published originally in October of 1868, it is a story set during the Civil War, but Alcott does not deal with the specifics of the war. Instead, it serves as the pretext for the absence of Robin March, the father of the four "Little Women", for a large portion of the first book. The novel today actually consists of two books, the original "Little Women" from 1868, and the sequel "Good Wives" which was published the following year in April of 1869. The two volumes started being treated as one in 1880.
The first book deals with the growing maturity of the four sisters, and in particularly of Jo and Meg as they have to learn to help their mother out more and do with less during the war, and while their father is away. Meg is the eldest at 16 when the story begins, and Jo (who clearly represents the author) is 15. There is then a gap of a couple years with Beth being just 13 and Amy 12. Their lives transition from that of young girls to young women, and each sister has her own unique traits. Margaret "Meg" with her beauty is following the traditional path in entering society and heading towards marriage. Josephine "Jo" is attracted by intellectual pursuits, in particular reading and writing. Elizabeth "Beth" is very shy and demure. She is also a peacemaker between the sisters, and enjoys helping others. Sadly, she also falls sick and never fully recovers from scarlet fever. Amy is the baby, and likes to tag along with others. She is also used to getting her own way.
The first book is masterful in its simplicity. The story feels real, undoubtedly largely due to the author drawing on her own experiences, but Alcott also cleverly avoids adding too much into it and thereby making it unrealistic. She chooses a good steady pace, and the characters are well defined and consistently portrayed. Her dialogue is not perfect, but that adds to the overall realism of the telling of the story. It is a wonderful story for young women to read, and is also very readable for older readers.
The second book is fairly good too, though it fails to be as believable as the first book as Alcott allowed herself to be convinced to have Jo marry. Alcott never married, and the union she chooses for Jo is a bit unusual and thus it doesn't feel right. Outside of that, though, the second book is a worthy successor to the first. Meg's choice of husband fits perfectly with the character and ideals that she develops in the first book. Most of Jo's actions in the second book also fit well with her character up, including her avoiding marriage with Laurie, her friend and neighbor who plays an important role throughout both books. Only at the point where Jo marries does it not fit. The tragedy of Meg's passing is beautifully described, and the reader is touched by the goodness of her character. Lastly, the full development of Amy fits well, including her choice of spouse.
The Penguin Classics edition of "Little Women" includes a very informative introduction by Elaine Showalter and extensive notes by Siobhan Kilfeather and Vinca Showalter. One of the important notes is that this edition is based on the original publications, and not those which were amended by Alcott for later editions, though obvious printer errors were corrected. There is discussion of some of the changes which Alcott made in the notes to the text. This is a wonderful book, but I will take part of a star away and round down for Jo's forced marriage.