Louisa May Alcott is best known for her classic coming-of-age novel "Little Women." But she tackles an entirely different part of growing up in "An Old Fashioned Girl," the story of a country mouse living with a wealthy urban family in late 19th-century America.
Polly Milton travels to stay with her aunt and uncle in the city, for the first time, but she immediately sticks out because of her outdated clothing and lack of fussiness. Her cousin Fan Shaw (also about fourteen) is already dressed like a young woman, and hangs out with a gang of shallow, trendy girls. Polly befriends old ladies, sings Scottish airs, and reads books on history. Can she fit in? What's more... does she really want to?
Fast forward about five or six years: The Shaw family learns that Polly is returning to the city, intending to give music lessons to help support her brother. Time hasn't really changed Polly -- she's still sweet-natured, moral and pleasant to everyone. But the Shaw family is in serious financial trouble -- and Polly will help out the only way she knows how.
In the late 1800s, "Girl" was written in two separate halves, which might explain why the second half is so much better than the first. The first isn't bad, but it suffers from a sort of prissiness. Virtually every story centers on Polly's moral struggles, with no break. Her story is far more engaging when she learns confidence and strength, not when she's wavering about peer pressure.
As in "Little Women," Alcott's writing is still pretty readable for modern readers, although most people will not know what a "pannier" is. She also writes a good understated love story, in Polly's gradual interest in her cousin Tom. You'll know that these two really need to get together, but it's going to take them awhile. So sit back and enjoy the ride.
Polly may put you off at first with her air of vague goody-two-shoes-ness, but she improves over the course of the book. Somewhat more realistic are the spoiled little brat Maud, the grumpy Tom, and the pretty but air-headed Fan. Grandmother isn't quite so engaging; she seems like an idealized older person who exists just to dispense wisdom. How about some personal quirks for the old lady?
Louisa May Alcott managed to wrap a lesson about peer pressure around a real story. Fans of her work will love "An Old Fashioned Girl," even with its few moralistic flaws.