Lawrence author’s ‘Belittled Women’ is a contemporary twist on a beloved classic
photo by: Mike Yoder
Amanda Sellet evidently had way more fun writing 2022’s “Belittled Women” than Louisa May Alcott did writing 1868’s “Little Women.”
But perhaps that’s not surprising. Alcott wrote her novel a bit begrudgingly — at the behest of a male publisher who wanted a book about girls. Judging by Alcott’s letters, she didn’t enjoy the task much, and she certainly didn’t anticipate that her quiet, domestic tale about the March family would become one of the most widely read novels in the world, let alone inspire countless authors — like Lawrence’s own Sellet — 150 years hence.
“Apparently she called it ‘The Pathetic Family’; that was her working title,” Sellet says of Alcott, “and she thought ‘this is going to be really insipid and who’s going to care?’ And ‘this is so boring’ … and her publisher was like, ‘nope, they’re going to eat this up,'” and no one, Sellet notes, was ever more right.
Sellet chose the cheeky title “Belittled Women” partially out of a “weakness for puns,” she confesses, but also because it “really seemed appropriate,” even though some might at first mistake the title as a negative reflection on the original.
“The book itself is really dealing with that question of does ‘Little Women’ belittle women in some way?” Sellet says. And is a “conventional mold of femininity belittling to women?”
Sellet’s book, set in semi-rural Kansas instead of Civil War-era Massachusetts, is narrated by a modern-day Jo, a high schooler who runs cross country and daydreams about winning an athletic scholarship to a college with a “grassy quadrangle, autumn leaves and lots of wool” somewhere far from her quirky mother’s obsession with running a “third-rate tourist attraction” called “Little Women Live!” — a spectacle that jeans-and-T-shirt Jo is obligated to perform in, pinafore and all, as she bickers nonstop with her sisters Amy and Meg. (Sellet’s book lacks Alcott’s tragic Beth, at least one that is permanently part of the family).
The genteel poverty of Alcott’s March family in Sellet’s hands is rendered in details like “an ancient station wagon lacking any hint of vintage coolness,” “a stretched-out suburb with flat expanses of patchy grass,” a weathered gray house and other indicators of a family’s hand-to-mouth existence.
Like the original, her book isn’t concerned with epic drama so much as regular things that happen to everyday people.
“It’s similar to ‘Little Women,'” Sellet says, in that it explores themes of growing up, fitting into a family when you differ from your siblings, disagreeing with people you love and feeling stifled by societal expectations. But it’s “just kind of twisted … It’s a very sassy and sarcastic kind of book, so people have to have a sense of humor about ‘Little Women’ and not necessarily be total purists about it.”
Sellet, in her early 50s now, grew up on the East and West Coasts with Alcott’s book as a kind of touchstone, not least because her own mom was a children’s librarian and was well-versed in the classic.
“It’s something that I knew really well. It was always part of the family, something to be quoted. … Every time one of us got a bad haircut, it would be, ‘Oh, Jo, your one beauty!'” (a reference to Alcott’s Jo cutting off her own hair for a good cause).
Sellet has her own teenage daughter now, and the Free State sophomore proved an invaluable sounding board in writing about contemporary teen girls.
She’s “my slang dictionary,” Sellet says, as well as a kind of “cringe” barometer.
Additionally, Sellet notes that the gulf between teenage life in the 1980s, when Sellet grew up, and now can often seem as wide as that between the 1840s, when Alcott was a teenager, and the 1980s.
“I mean just technology alone — if you just take the smartphone and social media and how that has transformed the world … but, beyond that, what they’re interested in, what they’re concerned about, what they want and their dreams … a lot of that has actually shifted. So I’m very glad to have a teenager in the house because I can just sort of get a slight reality check.”
The release date of “Belittled Women” by Clarion Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is Nov. 29, which happens to be Alcott’s 190th birthday, but the publisher is allowing the book to be sold a few days early for Small Business Saturday this weekend.
Sellet will be at The Raven Book Store, 809 Massachusetts St., at 3:30 p.m. for signings. For the full lineup of Saturday events and authors, see ravenbookstore.com.
“People should feel free to come say hi,” Sellet says.