“Meg & Jo,” by Virginia Kantra

Virginia Kantra

Reviewed by Tamatha Cain

Virginia Kantra’s latest novel, Meg & Jo, plays on the beloved story of the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, imagining the sisters as millennials navigating through both the internal and external pressures of modern womanhood. Kantra is New York Times best-selling author of 30 novels and winner of numerous awards including National Readers Choice and RITA awards. This novel utilizes her considerable strength in writing romantic arcs and frothy storylines that draw you in and keep you reading way past your bedtime. While many reviews and endorsements of this novel call it a modern retelling of Little Women, the author herself calls it a story inspired by this beloved classic. Going into the novel with that understanding significantly alters the experience.

The narrative finds Jo March living in New York City. After losing her job at a newspaper, she writes a food blog and makes ends meet by working in the kitchen of Chef Bhaer, an acclaimed culinary star.

Eldest sister Meg is back in the family’s hometown in Virginia, raising adorable twins with her husband, John. She measures herself against her mother at every turn and tries to emulate her singular, stoic way of never asking for help. When Abby is injured while working in the stables of her goat farm, Meg takes on even more responsibility and her life threatens to go off the rails. The neighbor’s son is John’s boss at a car dealership. A good deal of the fun here is figuring out how these characters correspond with and compare to the familiar ones we know and love.

In Meg & Jo, the personality of central character Jo is fundamentally different from her inspirational character. While she is searching for her path, the way has already been cleared for a Jo of the 21st century. Her trouble getting a book published doesn’t rest on the expectations of a publisher who needs the female protagonist to end up married and happy, but rather on the fact that she simply hasn’t written a book to publish. Instead, she blogs recipes and Pinterest-worthy food images. While the original Jo at first compromised her writing in order to sell her stories, modern Jo is not compromising by following her other passion of cooking and blogging about it. Her struggle to live a life on her own terms may not have the same impact or social implications of the original Jo, but perhaps that is in itself a victory worth exploring. That being said, you can’t unsee Jo in the shower with Mr. Bhaer, so fans who hold her (and the other sisters) on a pedestal will need to brace themselves!

The younger March sisters, Beth and Amy, appear throughout the book. We see that Beth has indeed grown old enough to go off to college to study music and sing with a country music star while Amy has secured an internship at Louis Vuitton in Paris. The girls return home to be there for their mother Abby. The girls all see behind the curtain of their parents’ marriage, which is viewed through a very different lens than that of the original novel. The new version may be more influenced by Alcott’s real family story. A very interesting aspect of this novel is the perspective we get into long-suffering Abby’s lonely life as her husband devotes his time and energy to war vets and their families, while neglecting his own wife and kids. This comes to a head when he chooses to leave while Abby is hospitalized. Though he is a pastor who joined the military to minister to the troops in Iraq, we see that his own girls know little of his beliefs beyond their duties as a pastor’s family. An illustration of this is when Jo muses, “It struck me I was in a stable on Christmas Eve, where, according to legend, animals talked and love came down to earth. There was a message there somewhere.”

For childhood fans of the original March sisters’ tales, this book offers an unapologetic jolt of modern sensibility. It offers a different view of the traditional, aspirational nuclear family and plays on more modern attitudes toward what is now seen as a stifling, rigid social structure. Still, Meg’s husband, John, turns out to be the rock-solid cog character that quietly facilitates the family’s machinery, and the reader will love him for it.

It is fascinating to consider that curious young women may seek out the original Alcott story after reading this novel, and in doing so get a glimpse into the lives of characters who shaped their mother’s and grandmother’s minds. The story ends on a very Louisa May Alcott note, with a picture of domestic bliss illustrating how life can be happy even if it isn’t someone else’s version of perfect, and we get a glimpse into the upcoming second book Beth & Amy. While Meg & Jo alternated between the viewpoints of the two women, the excerpt from the upcoming book includes only a scene from Amy’s. It’s not a spoiler to say that the missing voice of Beth is both dramatic and purposeful as it is the one thing the reader will be looking for.

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