Controversy and Canon: My Jo & Laurie Review

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is, of course, one of the most influential American novels of all time. But many readers were disappointed at the fates of the characters in the second volume of the book, where heroine Jo rejects a marriage proposal from her childhood friend, Laurie, and marries the much older Professor Bhaer instead.

Fans of Little Women are largely split about this decision to this day. Some insist that Jo should have married Laurie, while others say that they would have made a horrible couple and the ending is for the best.

Well, buckle up, guys. Everyone's oldest and most controversial ship is back, in the form of a lil book that was released just today -- Jo & Laurie by YA powerhouses Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz. But it might not be as simple as you think.

Read on for all the tea :)

NOTE: This review contains a few spoilers for the original Little Women novel (as you probably guessed from the spoiler in the first paragraph of this post -- hehe, sorry). It does not contain spoilers for Jo & Laurie beyond the obvious (i.e. Jo and Laurie end up together). It also doesn't contain any spoilers for, or indeed any mention of, the 2019 Little Women movie by Greta Gerwig.

Book Title: Jo & Laurie
Authors: Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz
Publisher/Year: Putnam, 2020
Genre: Retelling/Romance
Number of Pages (According to Goodreads): 320
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book description (from Goodreads):

Bestselling authors Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz bring us a romantic retelling of Little Women starring Jo March and her best friend, the boy next door, Theodore "Laurie" Laurence.
1869, Concord, Massachusetts: After the publication of her first novel, Jo March is shocked to discover her book of scribbles has become a bestseller, and her publisher and fans demand a sequel. While pressured into coming up with a story, she goes to New York with her dear friend Laurie for a week of inspiration—museums, operas, and even a once-in-a-lifetime reading by Charles Dickens himself!
But Laurie has romance on his mind, and despite her growing feelings, Jo's desire to remain independent leads her to turn down his heartfelt marriage proposal and sends the poor boy off to college heartbroken. When Laurie returns to Concord with a sophisticated new girlfriend, will Jo finally communicate her true heart's desire or lose the love of her life forever?

Louisa May Alcott's original intention

Even before Jo & Laurie was released, its Goodreads page was sprinkled with one-star reviews from people who objected to the premise of the book. Most of these objections were based around the idea that Jo & Laurie disrespects Alcott's wishes for her story.

It's undeniable that Alcott refused to have Jo and Laurie marry each other on principle. In her journal after the publication of Little Women's first volume, she wrote, "Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman's life ... I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please any one."

But still, the little women had to be married, so Alcott got her revenge by marrying Jo to "a funny match" -- that is, Professor Bhaer. She wrote to a friend that "I expect vials of wrath to be poured upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect."

That, then, is unequivocal fact. Jo was never supposed to marry Laurie, and Alcott in fact hated the idea.

So that means Jo & Laurie is disrespectful to Alcott, right?

Well, in my opinion, no.

First of all, Jo & Laurie isn't a straightforward retelling of Little Women. It's framed as a story within a story, wherein the original Little Women was written by Jo, and now she's struggling to write a sequel to please her publisher. This scenario mimics the way Louisa May Alcott herself struggled with the sequel in real life, as was explained in the excellent authors' note at the end. The framing also avoids any implication that the authors are trying to revise Little Women canon, which would obviously be disrespectful to Alcott's memory.

Second, the authors make it clear that they are totally aware of Alcott's original vision. They even include lines from some of her letters, including a paraphrasing of the quote I mentioned above, with Jo exclaiming, "I won't marry Jo to Laurie for anything! Especially not to please anyone!"

Even as they gently poke fun at some of the elements of the original story, I believe the authors have a deep respect for Alcott and what she was trying to do. Interestingly, they also provide a convincing reason for why Jo would write herself marrying Professor Bhaer in a universe where she really ends up marrying Laurie, but it would be too complicated and borderline spoilery to explain it here.

But what about the handling of Jo and Laurie's romance?

Now, on to the shipping wars. When I first read Little Women several years ago, I was definitely disappointed that Jo and Laurie didn't end up together. Yes, I was one of those horrible shippers that inspired this retelling. Sue me :P

More recently, having reflected on it, my preference would be if Jo didn't get married at all. Suffice to say, I still didn't like the guy she eventually married in canon. This retelling seemed like a cool way to see what it would have been like if things were different, and for me, it hit the mark exactly.

Here's the thing: original, canon Jo and Laurie make great friends, but I think they'd make a pretty terrible couple. Laurie is kind of immature, and seems to expect Jo to be in love with him just because he wants her to be. It's no wonder that a lot of readers feel Alcott made the right call with having Jo reject his proposal.

However, Stohl and de la Cruz's version of Jo and Laurie aren't canon Jo and Laurie.

Don't get me wrong -- they do resemble the originals for much of the story, with Laurie initially complaining a ton when Jo rejects him; but they both go through transformations that make them more compatible over the course of the story (read: Laurie grows the hell up :P). When they finally get engaged at the end of the story, I got straight-up chills, because it made sense in this version.

Well played, guys. Well played.

Sooooo what else did I like?

Aside from the main romance, I enjoyed discovering the little riffs on the original story that Stohl and de la Cruz slipped in there. Jo replicated some "real-life" events in Little Women exactly, but others she switched up and added and embellished.

One such riff I loved was the fact that Meg and John Brooke, who got engaged in Little Women, had never actually spoken to each other in reality -- at least, at the start of Jo & Laurie -- which causes a lot of awkwardness. Amy was a delight as always. I particularly loved the emphasis on Jo's struggles to write her sequel. As the authors noted at the end, Jo's writing process wasn't shown much in the original, and it was really cool to imagine what it would have been like.

Final verdict?

Overall, I think many fans of Little Women will like this book precisely for its meta qualities. The writing didn't replicate Alcott's style exactly, but as I read further, I realized that it didn't need to. Indeed, Jo & Laurie isn't intended as a revision of canon, but as a fun "what if?" scenario that explores how Jo and Laurie could have gotten together -- but also why, in the original canon, they might not have been meant for each other after all.

Thanks to Penguin Teen for the ARC of this book! Jo & Laurie is now available in stores everywhere, so if this sounds like something you'd like, go ahead and swipe your copy now :D

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