Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

We watched the new version of Little Women on the weekend. I can’t imagine how daunting it must be to take on remaking that movie, with so many beloved versions. My beloved version was made by Gillian Armstrong in 1994, with Winona Ryder as Jo and Christian Bale as Laurie. Basically, perfection, and a mandatory Christmas watch every year.

Disconcerting on Many Levels

I found it somewhat disconcerting to watch Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie. I love Saorise, especially from Brooklyn and On Chesil Beach, both quiet slices of magic. She’s brilliant, and I have no issue with her as Jo, except that she clearly isn’t Winona Ryder and she’s not in Gillian Armstrong’s movie. Timothee Chalamet is new to me, and quite frankly he didn’t work for me, at all. Too scrawny, too delicate – nowhere near a sufficient match for Jo in the early scenes. Nowhere near as dreamy as Christian Bale in the later scenes when he comes courting for Amy. A bit too lightweight.

Also distracting me was the fact that I realized Laura Dern, as Marmee, looks identical to my friend Brenda. I’ve seen Laura Dern in a million things, including Big Little Lies seasons 1 and 2 recently, and never noticed that she and B. were separated at birth. Clearly were. (Update: B. doesn’t see it. But I’m totally right.)

And a further distraction was the actress who played Beth. (Where have we seen that actress before? Oh, I know, Dan in Real Life, I told myself – a really underrated movie!) I was convinced it was Alison Pill (also from The Newsroom), and it wasn’t!! Turns out she’s an Australian actress I’ve never heard of.

Alison Pill
Eliza Scanlen

Are these not the same woman?

Even after I IMDB’d who was playing Beth during the movie, I was still convinced Alison Pill was playing Beth – that’s who I saw on the screen. If Pill showed up at the Golden Globes to accept an award for playing Beth, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.

Despite being very distracted by these casting issues, I tried to focus on the positive qualities of this updated version. Which I like more in theory than in reality, but let’s take an inventory.

What’s Good about It?

Feminism. The 2019 version is very feminist, and I ideologically have no problem with that, being, well, a feminist myself.

Of course Ryder’s Jo is a feminist too – she wants to make her way as an author. But this version presents women’s options as much bleaker – Aunt March nearly scares Amy to death when she tells her the fate of her entire family rests at her feet. She must marry well. She has no other choice. You kinda get why Amy is so fixated on marrying moneybags Freddie Vaughan for much of her early adult life.

Nuance. The characters of Amy and Meg, in particular, are much more nuanced than in the 1994 version. Amy is not just a spoiled, money-grubbing, vain brat – she’s talented and independent and thoughtful. Worthy of Laurie’s love in a way she’s not in the 1994 version. I am convinced Laurie married the 1994 Amy because he wanted to be part of the March family. I’m convinced he married Greta’s Amy because he was in love, as he tells Jo he is.

Meg is virtually a saint in Gillian Armstrong’s movie, misstepping only once at Sally Moffat’s debutante ball, having a tipple and showing some decolletage. Otherwise, perfection to a nauseating degree. Emma Watson’s Meg is much less saintly, splurging on silk fabric even after she’s married to John Brooks and poor as dirt, just to show Sally she can (when she can’t). She is much more fallible and human. (Having said that, Emma Watson was a complete milquetoast and groupie in that role. Didn’t like Meg at all.)

Even Marmee is far more nuanced – much more vulnerable and much less saintly. She cries (but doesn’t let her daughters see), she seems a bit cross with her injured husband, and then she gets snippy at her husband jokingly suggesting he would go to California with Prof. Baer. Theoretically, I should like her character a lot more in this film. But there’s something very comforting about Susan Sarandon’s unflinching and unwavering Marmee. No tears for her. Sainthood all around.

I haven’t read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women since I was about 11, so I can’t say which version of the characters is closest to the book.

Onto my Gripes.

What’s with the timeline? I found the non-linear timeline pretty darn annoying. Wait … Meg’s married with kids now? What time period is it? I’m confused.

It was also confusing that Amy is played by the same (brilliant) actress throughout (across a span of, what, at least 10 years?), and I found it hard to tell whether she was a girl or a woman in some scenes. Which was a bit creepy. The Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis girl/woman split in 1994 fixed that problem.

I suppose the narrative served the main purpose of putting Jo’s writing and her book Little Women front and centre, a character in its own right. The movie culminates in the publication of her book, rather than her pairing with Prof. Baer. That’s her accomplishment, that’s her true worth.

Still, it was distracting and precious and not entirely necessary.

Greta is NOT a hopeless romantic. It was a neat little feminist trope to have Jo’s editor, Mr. Dashwood, convince the author to pair up “Jo” the character with Prof. Baer at the end of her book, when Jo the author was determined that she would not marry. The romantic declaration of love between Frederich and Jo at the Concord train station is but a bit of literary fiction to appeal to Mr. Dashwood’s romantic and silly daughters.

Again, ideologically, I get it.

But the hopeless romantic in me wasn’t keen on that denouement. I also wasn’t sure why this Frederich was French and not German. And why he wasn’t Gabriel Byrne, the perfect Prof. Baer. (When he takes Winona Ryder to watch the opera from behind the stage, sigh.)

See, isn’t this hopelessly romantic and so much better?

As an aside, I am a Hopeless Romantic. I publicly declared myself as such at my second attendance at the off-Broadway show In and Of Itself. (Every theatre-goer has to select a card with a word or two that best describes them, from a display of about 500 cards? Play #1 was Problem Solver – with my law partner MJ. Play #2 was Hopeless Romantic with hubby. Clearly my choices were influenced by my companion at the play.)

Greta can’t change Jo’s arc just like that. Why can’t Jo be a successful author AND fall in love? What does Greta have against Jo having it ALL? Why is it better and more purely feminist that she end up alone? Why are love and marriage so easily dismissed ?

This is such a marked deviation from the author’s story – and Jo’s well-known history – that I do take exception to it.

All in all, I’d give it a B-.

We’ll always have Paris …

Hubby and I were watching The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, and I got all nostalgic when Rose leaves for Paris. All the cafes and bistros, and visiting the Rodin Museum. Esp. the Rodin Museum, my favourite part of Paris save for the food.

Except the tragic last night when we had Italian food in Paris. Not advised.

Rodin Museum w/ Paula, early May 2006

Spring and Fall

One of my favourite poems from undergrad. One of the few I still have memorized.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1880

The Great Gatsby

Possibly the most perfect closing paragraphs of any novel, ever. Graeme & I bonded over 30 years ago over a shared love of this book and these words. (And Billy Bragg.)

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I though of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further … And one fine morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

November Road

Lou Berney’s November Road came highly recommended to me, by someone whose taste is impeccable. “Stylized historical crime fiction” – not my usual fare at all. It’s the kind of book that has a blurb from Stephen King on the cover. (Which I’m fine with. Hey, I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King in my lifetime, admittedly mostly in high school. But I still love The Stand to this day.)

My expectations were high, and I wasn’t disappointed. November Road is a very good read. Extremely well-written, a compelling page-turner.

Here’s the premise: Set against the backdrop of JFK’s assassination, we meet Frank Guidry, a handsome, charming and entirely amoral New Orleans mafioso. Oops, turns out he played a small part in the assassination, unwittingly. He’s a rook in a game of payback orchestrated by his mob boss Carlos, who really didn’t appreciate Jack and Bobby hauling him to testify before Congress about organized crime. Turns out mob bosses hold grudges.

So Frank, always one step ahead, scrams when he sees other unwitting pawns getting offed all over New Orleans. Carlos is cleaning up loose ends. Frank’s on the lam, and along the way he meets up with Charlotte and her two young daughters, who are all headed to California.

Charlotte’s back story is pedestrian – she’s decided her life with a hopeless drunk of a husband in small town Oklahoma is going nowhere. JFK’s assassination barely makes an imprint on her – what does she care, her life will never change, she could write all of her next chapters on a napkin. After a depressing pre-Thanksgiving family dinner filled with pretense, Charlotte’s mother-in-law presses a wad of cash into her palm in unspoken gratitude for suffering her useless alcoholic son. Charlotte sees an opening and takes it. She packs her bags and the kids’ bags and they are off, with the car, the epileptic dog, and $300. So long drunk Dooley. Bye bye Oklahoma.

After their chance meeting, Frank decides to use Charlotte’s car trouble and the insta-family she provides to create a cover story for his own trek to Vegas. The bad guys looking for him won’t be looking for a family man on a Thanksgiving road trip with the pretty wife and sweet girls.

But the twist in November Road is that Frank falls for his own cover story. He falls in love with Charlotte … and her kids. He desperately wants the sham to become a reality. He wants to be a husband and, yes, even a father. His own father was a brutal asshole who ended up murdering Frank’s younger sister (with a fire poker, yikes) after Frank escaped his abusive home at an early age. However crappy a guy he is, Frank thinks about his sister every day.

Now here’s pretty, smart and thoughtful Charlotte – they can be a family together and right this ship for both of them. She admits she’s left hubby, and Frank assumes she must need a replacement. Here’s the family he never had, pre-packaged, and right at his door step.

Of course (spoiler alert) this Brady Bunch fantasy can never happen – Frank’s only hope for surviving Carlos’ wrath is getting the hell outside North America, as far away from Carlos as humanly possible. Vietnam is the plan, and it’s going to be tricky to get Charlotte to agree to that side trip. By the way, Charlotte’s interest in acquiring another hubby, even one as charming and handsome as Frank, is less than nil. Sex, sure, but otherwise she’s making her own way from now on. Men just drag you down.

November Road is at its heart a novel of redemption. We initially meet the Frank Guidry who rats out his oldest friend, who’s on Carlos’ shit list, after he’s sought Frank’s protection. He becomes the Frank Guidry who is prepared to sacrifice his own life for another’s. We initially meet the Frank who objectifies, exploits, and disposes of a long line of willing New Orleans women. In stark contrast to the Frank who grows to idolize and idealize Charlotte.

Yet Charlotte isn’t Frank’s salvation. Rather, it’s his newfound insight into what a healthy and nurturing parent-child relationship can be. He’s a man willing to sacrifice himself, and more for the kids than for Charlotte. Those girls deserve the chance at life that his asshole father stole from his sister.

Frank Guidry at the end of November Road is a changed man, a man trying to be decent for the first time in his life. A man willing to protect rather than run.

The best part of November Road, the most apt and fitting, is its epilogue, set decades later. Charlotte’s two daughters, both impressive movers and shakers shaped by their mother’s grit and determination, visit her grave. They have a fleeting memory of that road trip when they were little kids, with … who was that man? They don’t know that road trip shaped their lives. And their saviour Frank is largely unremembered and entirely redeemed.

Evidence that I am … somewhat … challenged

  1. In law school I walked by a car wash every day for 3 years. Setting: We lived in downtown Toronto, very very multicultural. In the third year I asked Graeme: What’s so special about “Polish wax”? My then fiance’s response: Are you retarded?
  2. After I had read all Harry Potter books, and watched all Harry Potter movies, Graeme had to point out to me that Diagon Alley was a play on the word “diagonally”.
  3. At lunch with Paula, I’m trying to figure out what the sign across the road says: Mo On Li Te. Is that restaurant called Mow on Lee Tay? Pause. Moonlight, says Paula, laughing.

Thoughts on reading real books

Note: This blog was written three summers ago, when we were staying at a rented house in Mahone Bay for a couple weeks. I guess I never got around to publishing it …

Here are some thoughts about reading real books.  I should do more of it.

I just finished reading a couple real books.

Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan.

Not Ulysses, or Bleak House, or The Life and Death of Ivan Denisovich. Only one of which I’ve read. But an actual fictional novel.

Commencement is the story of four young women who meet and live together in residence their first year at Smith, an all-girl college in Massachusetts. The book follows them through college, romances, career aspirations, and into the real world. It ends when they are all just over the hump of age 25.

I truly enjoyed this book, and how realistically it portrayed female friendships. These girls were not cookie cutters or clichés; they were all real, they were all different. They had the common bond of Smith among them, but otherwise came from diverse geographies, socioeconomic backgrounds and families.  It portrayed them all as ambitious, in their own ways. Sally marries early (before 25, the right guy? the right reasons?) and gets pregnant unexpectedly. Bree falls into a lesbian relationship in college (apparently almost de rigeur at Smith), comes out to unaccepting parents, and struggles to balance family vs. relationship. She’s a successful young lawyer in San Francisco, so I got that. Another, Celia, the aspiring writer, is stuck in a grim entry-level publishing job in NYC that saps her creativity; she dates but comes to realize she has little interest in a “relationship” or motherhood. And then there is April, the rebel, the radical feminist, the would-be anarchist seeking an ill-fated maternal figure; the latter half of the novel revolves around her unexpected disappearance in Atlanta, and brings the friends together again after an alienating alcohol-laced fight before Sally’s wedding.

I liked each of the characters. Like I say, they were real, and different, and yet their friendships worked. And the jockeying, power-plays and acceptance of the different dynamics amongst the friends, in their various combinations and permutations, was well done – speaking from experience.

The book had a great, surprise ending, and I’ve rarely wished for a sequel to a book as much as I’m wishing to find out what happens next, after the final page of Commencement.

This week I finished a memoir I’d been eager to read. Called The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. I was told to expect to cry. I didn’t. I didn’t relate to Ariel very much (I related much more to Sally, Bree and Celia – not so much to April.) Ariel is a writer. Extremely talented writer – lots of underlining of lovely passages. And look at the pretty words I had to look up as I read:

  • Lickerish (greedy)
  • Labile (changing)
  • Lambent (softly radiant)
  • Coruscate (emit flashes of light)

She’s bi-sexual, gets married to an older butch lesbian (don’t call her Ariel’s wife – Ariel is the wife!). She struggles with wanderlust and the desire to be a mother. She becomes pregnant, travels to Mongolia on assignment, and gives birth so prematurely (19 weeks) that doctors say it was a miscarriage and yet the baby was born alive, breathing. Ariel feels she’s lost a baby, beyond a miscarriage.  She took a picture of the baby; he existed. She insists on showing the picture more than she ought.  She develops an odd correspondence with the older South African doctor who tended to her in Mongolia.

A life far more outrageous and memoir-worthy than mine.  So I didn’t relate, but I did love the prose; and her story gripped me, and I was sorry when it ended. And I hoped she didn’t fall into an ill-advised relationship with Dr. South Africa – it would have been a rebound thing, not good for either of them.

I’m in the middle of reading Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls.  I’ve read her past two books – one a series of short stories, and one a novel. I love her narrative voice. It’s a Millenial, weary, detached-while-trying-to-participate voice. Always the outsider looking in, and in doing so, being spot-on with observations and hilarious in her outsider comments.  It’s taking me a while to get through it.

None of the “real” books I’ve been reading have been escapist. Commencement is maybe chick lit, I’m not sure. Sullivan is a good writer. But it included some fraught scenarios and pretty screwed up psyches all around. Levy’s memoir was disaster from cover-to-cover – at one point she meets a friend of a friend at a party, and is asked “Oh, are you the Ariel that bad things keep happening to?”  So not escapist.  The Hopefuls, set in Washington DC and populated with the idealistic young people who parlayed volunteer jobs on the campaign into White House jobs in Obama’s administration, is clear-eyed, cynical, and without patina.

I mostly don’t read real books anymore. For about three years now.  It’s romances, many free off Bookbub, because that’s about the level of engagement I can handle – pure fantasy, attraction, lust, hiccup/misunderstanding, happy resolution.  Cinderella, Prince Charming, sex (to varying gynecological degrees). Sometimes historical (I highly recommend Lisa Kleypas, thanks Sharon for recommending.) Running my own business, practicing law, sometimes unwell hubby – all of it translates into the lowest common denominator. The adult romance. The historical romance. I’m not the only one who reads them. A couple friends do, too, and we recommend authors to each other.

But it’s unhealthy.

First of all, many (not all, not Lisa Kleypas) are really badly written, and that’s makes the written syrupy pablum not just lacking in nutrition but mildly toxic.

Sometimes I can feel the brain cells dying as I read them.

I read them instead of reading my book club books, which too often are set in WWI and WWII, and no thanks to that at all.

Second of all, that’s not life. Sure, I had little in common with Ariel Levy. But she was real and flawed. I didn’t relate to her experience, but I got her. One could sense she had to take showers and shave her legs from time to time. 

Heroines in romances don’t need showers. They never shave their legs. They are permanently vanilla-scented and hairless, all over one assumes.

Their heroes are large, masculine, muscular, toned, great in bed, and willing to do anything for their loves. Case in point: one of the last romances I read – the aspiring partner at a criminal defence law firm falls in love with Chelsea, the aunt/guardian to her 6 orphaned nieces and nephews. Right. He’d be running away, preferring any billable hour to family hour. 

By contrast, my husband this week, when I told him the vacation house’s toilet was blocked up (not by my doing, I point out to you, nor necessarily his – we had guests!), asked “And that’s my problem?” Clearly, by default, it’s all my problem. Ditto when I handed him the TV remote. Context: I make a lot of decisions in my day-to-day working life: I’m an employer, business owner, and trusted advisor to dozens of clients; sometimes I just don’t want to fucking make any decisions, esp. ones I will be judged on. I know he doesn’t want to watch a mindless Big Bang Theory episode, so fucking find what you want to watch. I don’t care. Neither one of us does, because we’re looking at our respective rectangles the entire time anyway. No one pays exclusive attention to anything, at all, ever, anymore.

Hubby’s response to being handed the remote:  You can’t even handle a remote?

So romances are not a good idea for me. 

Note to hubby – these are isolated incidents. You are normally a very fluffy bunny and a very friendly bear.