Book Club Review: “Great or Nothing”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is retellings and re-imaginings.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Great or Nothing” by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, & Jessica Spotswood

Publishing Info: Delacorte, March 2022

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Retelling/Re-imagining: “Little Women”

Book Description: A reimagining of Little Women set in the spring of 1942, when the United States is suddenly embroiled in the second World War, this story, told from each March sister’s point of view, is one of grief, love, and self-discovery.

In the spring of 1942, the United States is reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the US starts sending troops to the front, the March family of Concord, Massachusetts grieves their own enormous loss: the death of their daughter, Beth.

Under the strain of their grief, Beth’s remaining sisters fracture, each going their own way with Jo nursing her wounds and building planes in Boston, Meg holding down the home front with Marmee, and Amy living a secret life as a Red Cross volunteer in London–the same city where one Mr. Theodore Laurence is stationed as an army pilot.

Each March sister’s point of view is written by a separate author, three in prose and Beth’s in verse, still holding the family together from beyond the grave. Woven together, these threads tell a story of finding one’s way in a world undergoing catastrophic change.

Kate’s Thoughts

I’m someone who has what is probably an average relationship with the book “Little Women”. I read it once a long time ago, I really like the 1994 film with Winona Ryder, and when I was working at a historic Victorian house I was one of the people who would lead a “Little Women” themed Christmas tour. I’m not super wedded to the book like I am “Anne of Green Gables”, but I like it enough. When I saw that Book Club was going to take on a “Little Women” re-imagining that takes place during World War II, it struck me as a perfect time period to revisit this story of sisters growing up during war time and learning hard life lessons while also finding their places in the world. And I was happy to see that I was right.

“Great or Nothing” is written in four different perspectives from four different authors, one for each March sister. The story plunks us midway through the original tale, with Beth already dead and Jo, Meg, and Amy separated and feeling the distance (especially since they all left on a sour note between the three of them). The surviving sisters take on roles that women could have during WWII that perfectly fit each of them. We have Meg at the home front doing fundraising, planting victory gardens, and teaching children. We have Jo working in a plane factory, doing a whole Rosie the Riveter thing. And we have Amy in London volunteering for the Red Cross, and meeting up with Laurie who is fighting in Europe. Beth also has a perspective, with poetry being used because she’s dead, I guess? Regardless, I really felt like all of these settings were perfect for the various sisters, and I mostly liked how all of the sisters felt like their core characters set in a new time. I think that my favorite was Meg’s, as the home front has always fascinated me with war bonds, fund raising, and advocacy, but I did like Jo’s story of working in a factory and finding romance with a lady war reporter named Charlie (as a true Professor Bhaer fan, I loved how they brought this relationship into this story with a queer twist). That said, I did find it a little bit of a bummer that we were at a point in the story where Meg, Jo, and Amy weren’t really interacting with each other, as that is part of the charm of the original story for me. It seemed like an odd choice, but at the same time since it was four different authors writing each sister, I suppose that makes some sense so as not to step on each other’s toes.

“Great or Nothing” is a really well thought out re-imagining of a classic tale, with a nice blending of voices from different authors to give Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March interesting stories in the 20th century.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’m probably similar to Kate in my devotion levels to the original “Little Women.” Enjoyed the book, liked the 90s version of the movie well enough, really liked the recent one that was released a few years ago. But, like Kate, I don’t have any strong emotions attached to it, which in many ways makes it the perfect book for a retelling! If you’re not a devoted fan, you won’t get as mad at changes!

Anyways, the first thing that stood out to me was how much I liked the change in time period. There are a million and one WWII books out there, but this story really took a unique angle at exploring all of the very different ways that women contributed to the war front, both at home and abroad. Not only did this give the reader a wide range of angles on this particular time of history, but all of these choices also worked perfectly with the characters themselves. I was also very impressed with how well the different writing styles of all of the authors worked together. Perhaps….too impressed? If I hadn’t know that this was authored by four different people, I’m not sure I would have guessed, and I’m not sure that’s really for the best. Obviously, cohesion on this sort of project is key, but I also think you lose something from the original goal if every author’s voice is paired down to the point that they’re indistinguishable from each other.

As for the story, I thought it did a good job of hitting the major plot points that fans will look for. That said, I didn’t necessarily enjoy many of these chapters. While I liked the look at the types of work that Meg and Jo were doing, their personal arcs I found more frustrating. Honestly, if I had to hear one more time about the big fight they all got into, I think I would have screamed. In this way, I felt like this book really missed the mark on the overall theme of “Little Women.” Yes, the sisters have their quarrels, but the primary heart of the story is built around the deep bonds they all share. So for this book to spend the vast majority of its time with each sister endlessly reflecting on their broken ties…it just felt like a bummer and a let down of the original premise. This being the case, Amy’s story rose to the top for me as the only one that felt as it had any real action or stakes involved. I enjoyed getting to see her and Teddy’s romance play out more in real-time as well, rather than the off-page romance we get in the original.

Overall, I felt like this book was ok. I didn’t love anything it was doing, but I also didn’t hate any of it. I think Meg and Jo both could have been done better by, but I really enjoyed Beth’s poetry sections and Amy’s plot line. Fans of the original looking for a unique take will likely enjoy this, however.

Kate’s Rating 8: A great new setting for a classic tale of sisters growing up and finding themselves, “Great or Nothing” is a successful “Little Women” retelling.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting reimaging with an excellent use of shifting the historical setting, but it still somehow feels as if it misses the mark on the heart of the original story.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the time period in this retelling? Do you think that World War II fit in with the “Little Women” story?
  2. Each of the March sisters was written by a different author. Did you like any sister more than the others?
  3. Did the Beth sections with the poetry work for you as you were reading? Would you have preferred to see another character’s perspective over Beth’s, like Laurie, or Marmee?
  4. Which of the sister’s plots would you like to be in? The homefront? A factory? Acting as a Red Cross volunteer overseas? Something else?
  5. What is your experience with the original “Little Women” story?

Reader’s Advisory

“Great or Nothing” is included on the Goodreads lists “Book Riot 2022 #21: Read a Queer Retelling of a Classic of the Canon, Fairytale, Folklore, or Myth”, and “YA & Middle Grade Retellings of “Little Women””.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Raven and the Reindeer” by T. Kingfisher

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