Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.
25 re-reads, on many '100 Greatest Novels' lists, and said to be one of the most widely read novels of all time. I know I read in in autumn 2011, but I have a feeling I may have read it before that when I was very young. And, there is no doubt, I do want to re-read it again. Like every truly wonderful book, a new read gives a new angle.
Writing about this is really covering old ground: this book is so well-loved and familiar to so many, I don't think I could possibly add to all that is written about it. But I do love it, I have to say that, and I have to say why; it's a book I very much want to share my love for.
It begins and ends with Christmas, with the four sisters, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, talking, sharing their thoughts, and "knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within". Although each sister suffers some kind of trial throughout their transition from childhood to adulthood - this 'in between' stage they're in, not women, not girls, but "little women", it brings out the best in them: it is a very comforting novel: adversity may be overcome somehow, with love and patience. This novel is, as most know, inspired by Transcendental philosophy, that perfection may be reached not through the "physical and empirical", the outside influences (which are, in fact, ultimately corrupting), but by self-examination, self-knowledge, and self-reliance (this definition is based on a few articles I read on the internet this afternoon, so you may wish to correct me if I haven't expressed it properly).
Transcendentalism, being generally non-conformists, was sympathetic to women's rights (Alcott, in her later years, was involved in the suffragette movement). In Little Women, Alcott (gently) challenges some gender roles: Jo resents being female because of women's social status: the lack of education (her painful jealousy when Teddy goes to college), frustration at not being able to join her father in the Civil War, and her general 'tomboy' demeanour. And all the sisters, these "little women" are well-rounded; human, not idealised, very much flawed. All of them try to do their best and overcome the less desirable aspects of their characters (largely showed in these "trials" I mentioned) - Jo's temper, Meg's vanity and love of money and luxury, Amy's pride, and Beth - even Beth is flawed, sometimes grumpy, sometimes resentful. Though very quiet and lovely, this girl who loves to play with her dolls and her kittens is not an angel.
And this is the realism element of Little Women. It is a realistic portrayal of a Transcendental family in Concord, Massachusetts, with real feelings and real experiences. What is remarkable about this novel, largely, is their own personal development. It is very gentle and it is a wonderful Christmas read, but of course it is much more than that. It is sweetly inspiring, for want of a better phrase. The "little women" do not achieve perfection in the novel, but they become increasingly aware of their faults without being dragged down and depressed by them. They constantly strive for better, and "better" is not judged by an increase in money or social status. They're positive, and they keep their humour and love for each other. It's a beautiful novel, so very warm, hopeful, and honest. I have much affection for this book.