Hi, everyone. This has to be the latest yearly book round-up post on record in the world of bookish blog posts, but nonetheless, I hope it’s still interesting and helpful if you enjoy this sort of thing. I’ve already written some about what a different reading year 2020 was for me, and I think the timing of this post, as well as my reading so far in 2021, just continues to prove how much my reading has been affected by the strangeness of this past year. And that’s okay! I hardly read a single new thing in January of this year. I lived in the Narnia books, the Harry Potter books, and Pride and Prejudice for most of it, and I was completely fine with that. It’s also sweet to look back on the books I re-read in 2020 and remember what a comfort they were to me. And despite how unexpected and strange my reading life was in 2020, I still read a lot of really good, edifying, thoughtful books. I hope you enjoy my list and are perhaps inspired to pick up something new. And the nerdy stats perhaps won’t interest anyone but me, but thank you for indulging me anyway :) 

Total Books Read (new to me): 33! 

Books Re-read: 6 – 
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Persuasion by Jane Austen

Format Breakdown:
- Read the physical book: 26/33 (~79%)
- Listened to the audiobook: 7/33 (~21%)
I found it interesting that I didn’t read anything on Kindle last year. Maybe I just couldn’t take one more screen, even if it does look more like a book.

Author Stats: 
- Male: 14
- Female: 15

Favorites of 2020

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
A gentle, lyrical, endearing novel about family dynamics, wartime romance, and Cornwall. Haley Atwell’s narration of the audiobook is sublime.
Seeing Green: Don’t Let Envy Color Your Joy by Tilly Dillehay
Possibly my favorite Christian living book of the last 3-5 years. It not only helped me to understand envy and recognize its signs and damage, but also how to counteract it and how much joy we exchange when we give into it. It equipped me to fight envy, and, to my sweet surprise, more deeply delight in my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund
There’s a reason this book has been so thoroughly read and recommended and reviewed in Christian circles since its publication last April. I believe its release at that particular time was clearly providential, given how difficult the following months became for so many people. I’m grateful to be one among the swarms who drew strength from it last year. It’s a warm and comforting divine hug, a balm to the soul, and a needed look at the “breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love. Carefulness and trepidation might usually characterize some Christians’ conversation about Jesus’ affection for his people, but Dane Ortlund takes his readers there without hesitation. I’m so glad he does.
Sex and the City of God by Carolyn Weber
If you’re not raising an eyebrow at that title, congratulations. I know I did. But also, extra congratulations if you’ve already identified the two cultural references that it riffs on, because I admit that took me longer to do. This is a follow-up to Carolyn Weber’s memoir Surprised by Oxford, which remains one of my favorite books of all time. This is a worthy and heartfelt sequel about Carolyn’s growth as a new Christian, reordering desires and priorities based on Jesus, theology of the body and of being known, and much more. And she puts you right in the middle of her scenes with her gorgeous word pictures. It never gets old.
A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and Selected Poems by Wendell Berry
I largely credit Wendell Berry with saving my 2020 reading. He helped me get out of my own thoughts, look at what was in front of me, recognize and name the good and beautiful things around me, and fix my heart heavenward over and over again. 
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
My other 2020 reading saviors! If you need something equal parts lighthearted and profound, laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerker poignant, look no further than A.A. Milne.

Honorable Mentions:

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: My first read of this classic! God bless it, indeed. It is a sweet and redemptive delight. I needed it.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: Also a classic that I had somehow passed by in earlier years. Excellent crime drama made superb by Richard Armitage’s narration.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri: Yet another classic that I missed during childhood, but am thankful I read in 2020. Bright, innocent, sweet, and surprisingly gospel-rich.
Handle with Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert: A needed and fascinating discussion on the theology of touch and the role of touch in a Christian’s life. I’ve been convinced for a while that touch is important, but this book convinced me of it even more. It’s not prescriptive, but it’s thoughtful, tied to Scripture, and may challenge you to at least start by giving a few more hugs. I think we could all use more of those, especially after this past year. 
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner: A fun jaunt through the post-WWII English countryside with a motley crew of Jane Austen fans who band together to save her legacy in southern England. An easy and charming read for anyone who enjoys Austen’s work. Richard Armitage narrates this one too and he’s perfect (he could read me the phone book and I think I’d swoon, tbh).

Happy reading, all! Let me know what your 2020 favorites were and what I should read in 2021!

Books Read in 2020 (full list of books I read that were new to me, in the order completed): 
The Reading Life by C.S. Lewis (compiled by David Downing and Michael Maudlin)
What is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander
The Biggest Story by Kevin DeYoung
Bella Poldark by Winston Graham
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
Handle With Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert
A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
Of Literature and Lattes by Katherine Reay
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When Pain is Real and God Seems Silent by Ligon Duncan
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
One Assembly by Jonathan Leeman
The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems compiled by Leland Ryken
That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron
Sex and the City of God by Carolyn Weber
Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Sleeping Tiger by Rosamunde Pilcher
An Ivy Hill Christmas by Julie Klassen
Seeing Green by Tilly Dillehay
The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli
(A)Typical Woman by Abigail Dodds
A Castaway in Cornwall by Julie Klassen
God's Grandeur: the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Friendish by Kelly Needham
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Holiness by J.C. Ryle
As we bid farewell to another year, per usual, I’m reflecting on what I’ve read and the books that stood out. As previously discussed, 2020 was different for my reading life, just as it was different in practically all areas of life for most people. When I look back on the upheaval my reading life saw this past year, Wendell Berry and A.A. Milne stand out as its most obvious lifesavers. When I think about what I read in 2020, I’m filled with gratitude for the work of these two authors. Their writing breathed renewed life into my reading, steadied me amidst anxiety, and reminded me to recognize the beauty and goodness of everyday life. I hope what I’ve learned from them can encourage you too, help you think about what made your reading easier this past year, and perhaps move you to pick up a Berry or Milne book. 

Wendell Berry’s Poetry
I hadn’t read much poetry regularly before this year. But, as providence would have it, I picked up a volume of Wendell Berry’s the last weekend before my local library closed in March. I knew a bit about Berry and had been wanting to try something of his, but I had no idea just how much his poetry would mean to me in the coming weeks. I read his Selected Poems and A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and there are still several across both volumes that I think about regularly. Berry’s reflective style and his steady focus on what is good, true, and beautiful were a balm to my tired heart. When I think about my time with his poems, I notice three overall themes in how they were a help to me–

1. They slowed me down
There’s something about the rhythm of a poem that forced me to stop and breathe. Even now, when I read a Berry poem, I can often nearly feel my heart rate coming down as I absorb it. In a time when my attention span was suffering, poetry ended up being the perfect solution, because its cadence enabled me to pay attention and to re-center myself in a way that prose couldn’t. And yet, poems are also comparatively short, so it wasn’t difficult to sit with a few at a time.

2. They helped me notice the simple good in front of me
Wendell Berry’s love of nature and simple living is well-known, and his poems bring it to center stage. His Kentucky farm life features heavily, as do the people he loves, his value for meaningful work and leisure, and other seemingly “everyday” things that become miraculous when you stop and consider. A friend of mine recently commented that he was thankful for how 2020 has reminded so many people to be grateful for “the basics” like family, health, church, and community. Wendell Berry certainly reminded me of how beautiful the basics can be too, and I’m so glad he did.

3. They helped me look up at the beauty of the world and away from self
I’ve always appreciated nature, but, as mentioned, Wendell Berry loves it. And now, at the end of 2020, I’d say that I also love it. His lyrical voice and word pictures awoke me to the beauty of my own backyard in new ways, and my daily walks gradually became an outlet not only for exercise, but for remembering how big and beautiful the world is, and, subsequently, my own smallness and finitude. Acceptance of one’s own limits can be difficult, but it’s also freeing. Berry turns often to the natural world’s grandeur both for thrills and for reminders to be at peace with the present, and I’m grateful for how his perspective encouraged me to look up and outside of myself.

A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh Books
Somehow, A.A. Milne’s Pooh books didn’t make it into my childhood repertoire, and I was only passingly familiar with the animated movies based on them. I picked up the first two, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, on the recommendation of two trusted friends when I was easing back into chapter books. Surely a light children’s story would help me work up to normal size books again, right? Right, BUT! Oh, how I ended up savoring these delightful tales. The characters are endearing, and the writing was easy to follow, yet it also surprised me with its wisdom.

1. They made me laugh
This may seem too obvious, but I don’t want to treat it like a small thing. We all needed laughter in 2020, and I’m glad I read books that provided it! Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” and I found that true while reading about the Hundred Acre Wood and its inhabitants. I have the antics of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, et al to thank for laughter when I needed it, and I think the fact that I didn’t expect to get it from them made it sweeter.

2. They made me remember the beauty and profoundness of simple children’s stories
The benefit of simplicity was again brought to my attention through these books. They’re short, easy, and the plots aren’t particularly exciting or fast-paced. The characters stay close to home and their troubles could be seen as silly if one resorts to easy cynicism. But I was reminded of how helpful and wholesome it can be to read a story stripped of extra frippery and mind games. I didn’t have to think hard or get uptight with suspense, so the poignant moments really smacked me in the face with their simple, heartwarming goodness. The final scene between Pooh and Christopher Robin in The House at Pooh Corner still gives me all the feels. *cue blinking*

Have I convinced you to try either of these authors yet? I hope so! But I’d also love to hear from you. If you struggled with reading in one way or another in 2020, what helped? What books or authors were steadying or newly inspiring for you amidst the year’s uncertainty? I’d love recommendations too! In closing, here’s my favorite poem from Wendell Berry. It’s a lot of people’s favorite, but there’s a reason for that :)

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Hi, friends. Wow, #2020, right? This year has wreaked havoc on many well-intentioned plans and dreams, and I confess my reading life and ability to put words on a page were among those things that were upended. But now, I’m back to share what I’ve learned and hope you’ll take what you will. Despite the many hardships of this year, I suspect I’m not the only one who can now look back in part and discern unexpected gifts that have come out of it, and though it’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things, my reading has certainly experienced some surprisingly good shifts.

My Takeaways from an Odd Reading Year 

1. Give yourself grace and adjust as you go
As life began changing so quickly in mid-March, one of the most noticeable everyday differences I experienced was a sudden inability to focus on reading, even if I’d been enjoying the book. I spaced out quickly and felt overwhelmed when I tried to read for long stretches. Thankfully, I think I had enough self-awareness to not beat myself up over this, and it was comforting to hear that mine was not an unusual experience. So, after some disappointment and adjusting of expectations, I gave myself more leeway on my reading goals for the year and didn’t try to force myself to read, especially during the most stressful early days of the pandemic. All that to say – if there’s a big stressor in your life, it’s okay to readjust. It’s okay to not be crushing 100+ pages every day. Maybe it’s a good time for new shows too (I watched several in the spring!), and maybe your brain just needs some time to catch up with the new situation. That said… 

2. Lean into your mood
I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m somewhat of a mood reader already, but also certainly choose books based on premeditated goals or because I want to be a well-rounded person. But this past spring, as I was recreating everyday routines and could almost feel my brain developing a new “reading in a pandemic” setting, I didn’t hesitate to go in whatever direction my mood took me. Sometimes that meant abandoning a book after only a chapter or two, and other times it meant returning to an old favorite for the hundredth time. It helped immensely to not force anything as my mind adjusted and learned how to cope.

3. Keep reading
That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? No matter how weary or sad your days may become, don’t give up. Keep adjusting and keep trying. The right book will come! 

What Helped My 2020 Reading

1. Poetry
This surprised me, but I’m so glad it happened. As mentioned, one of the earliest manifestations of pandemic-stress for me was a sudden inability to concentrate on reading. I couldn’t “get lost” in a book like I usually can, and this was both odd and frustrating since it would have been the ideal time to escape into another world. But I found that I wasn’t the only one experiencing the “pandemic fog” in my reading life. Apparently, a large external threat can affect the parts of the brain responsible for focus and retention! Once I understood this, I began turning to poetry since a poem doesn’t require the same length of attention as chapters worth of prose. To my relief and gratitude, it worked, and poetry soon became a lifeline and a joy. I could read several poems in one sitting within a relatively short amount of time, and even for a quick span, they helped me sit quietly and breathe deeply, leaving me a little calmer when I finished.

2. Really light and short fiction
In every sense of the word, I eased back into 300+ page books. I started with short, easy, meaningful children’s books, and slowly worked in some practical, accessible Christian living. Longer fiction was almost strictly on audio for a while, and everything I listened to fell within the “comfort reading” category – easy plots, somewhat predictable, but still good and thoughtful stories.

3. Re-reading favorites more than usual
Tried and true favorites always do wonders for me when I’m struggling. Yes, it takes time away from goals and checking off new books, but oh, how needed it is sometimes. Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, J.K. Rowling, and C.S. Lewis have done wonders for me this year, and I suspect I still may dust off at least one Susanna Kearsley book, and perhaps The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, before December is up.

Unexpected Gifts of 2020 Reading

1. Newfound love for poetry
I hope to write more soon on what a gift the poems of Wendell Berry in particular have been to me this year, but truly, they were a God-send in their simple beauty and focus on the present. And, overall, I appreciated how poetry forced me to slow down and honed my ability to stop and reflect, even if just for a few minutes at a time.

2. Reading shorter and simpler is good
There are times to return to the basics of anything, and doing so can provide needed reminders of the beauty of those basics. I think 2020 has done that for a lot of people in many areas. We’re thankful in new ways for family, health, shelter, medicine, employment, and dinners with friends. Similarly, when I was relegated to simpler books, I remembered why I love reading, and was also reminded of the deep, abiding value of a straightforward children’s story. 

3. Re-reading led me to new or remembered favorites
Little Women was one of my earliest re-reads of this year, and I could never have imagined how valuable it would prove. I picked it up again after seeing the beautiful new movie adaptation, and it served sweet reminders about grief, love, and family. Again, it made me remember why I love good stories, and it also helped me process the losses of 2020 in ways I didn’t know I would need. 

On another note, I also re-read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which I first read four years ago and didn’t find especially worth its hype. But I think my comfort both with re-reading and with watching new things this year led me back to this one. The new Netflix film adaptation of Rebecca had caught my eye, and after watching it, I decided to give the book another try. I went for the audiobook this time and couldn’t listen fast enough. It was engrossing, just haunting enough, and beautifully suspenseful. Du Maurier’s style is unlike anything else I’ve read, and I’m so glad that my penchant for re-reading this year helped it click this time, giving me a new favorite from an old read.

What have you read or learned about reading in 2020? How has your reading changed this year? What has been particularly helpful or good in your reading? I’d love to hear.

Nobody knew how much the world would be collectively grieving just halfway through 2020. In January, a new decade full of possibilities stretched ahead. But now, people look back on months of hurt and confusion and wonder how the year could possibly be only half over. Our world aches as it battles a global disease, loss of loved ones, division, injustice, and disappointment.

For me, 2019 was a year of learning to honestly process disappointment and grieve well during relatively normal times. So, when cancellations, isolation, and anxiety began to grip the world this year, I was surprisingly thankful for the practice of 2019, hard as it was at times. Grief and disappointment are common to humanity, but we’re still filled with questions and confusion when they first strike. And no matter how large or small the cause for a particular grief may be, facing it honestly and maturely is important and requires intentionality.

As a lifelong lover of good stories, I’m a firm believer in the power of stories to help us grow in any area of life, sorrow being no exception. To that end, I’m returning to Little Women, one of my favorite books and one that explores grief with candor, empathy, and thoughtfulness. Only recently have I realized how much this well-beloved story has to do with grief, and I was fittingly re-reading it when the pandemic began to wreak havoc in my community. Since then, I’ve been strengthened and helped by its messages on loss and sorrow. So, whether you’re grieving the death of a loved one, widespread injustice, or cancelled plans that were dearly held, I hope this book’s handling of grief and the reflections I share here from my reading may help you face it with a little more clarity and move forward with a little more hope.

(Disclaimer: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers everywhere)

Little Women’s Great Grief: Beth March’s Fate
Little Women has been analyzed and re-read throughout generations since its publication in 1868, and yet, as Greta Gerwig’s lovely new film adaptation has lately proved, it continues to stand the test of time. It endures because it explores universal themes, such as growing up, family dynamics, love, and, necessarily, grief, through the untimely death of one of the story’s four “little women.” Mixed feelings abound among Little Women fans regarding the third March sister, Beth, and her sad end. She battles painful shyness, but always exudes kindness, generosity, and tenderness. Indeed, for some, her unfailing selflessness makes her death feel inevitable and cliché, and they may nod in agreement when second sister Jo says, “The good and dear people always do die” (Alcott, p. 212). Others struggle to like Beth, as her constant goodness can seem almost martyr-like, while still others have argued that her death is merely a convenient plot device used to inject conflict. But upon close reading, this death elicits raw emotion and invites readers to thoughtfully examine death and grief, primarily through Beth’s courageous acceptance of her end, and through Jo’s pained reckoning with the loss.

Beth’s Courage

Top L, Top R, Bottom: Claire Danes, Annes Elwy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth March (1994, 2017, 2019 respectively) [Sources: Forever Young Adult, WGBH, BFI]

Beth may be the most fragile character in Little Women, and her propensity for service may seem overly saint-like to some, but, paradoxically, it is in preparing to meet death, that most dreaded of human enemies, that she demonstrates victory over the fear with which she has struggled her whole life. Shyness and anxiety are Beth’s marked traits. She sticks close to home, fears talking to new people and trying new things, and thrives best amidst quiet and familiarity, pouring her heart into serving those she knows and loves. True to her natural reserve, when she first realizes her time is waning, she keeps the knowledge locked away, perhaps out of some faulty martyrdom, but also out of genuine desire to keep a right perspective. By the time she confides in Jo, she has grown accustomed to her fate, but Jo’s grief helps Beth to truly grieve well as she prepares to depart life. She recognizes the gifts of life that she’s loath to give up, but also determines to devote her remaining time to making the world a bit happier for those she will leave behind. Beth fully acknowledges the pain, but also strives for peace with it, as the narrator aptly describes:

“Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety; it shows itself in acts rather than words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death…She could not say, ‘I’m glad to go,’ for life was very sweet to her; she could only sob out, ‘I try to be willing,’ while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together.” (Alcott, p. 428)

Beth’s sorrow is indeed great, but she never allows bitterness to take root in her heart and works hard to love others well as long as she can. And through both her quiet acceptance and efforts to prepare herself to depart life, her fear becomes secondary and those dear to her are made better for her example. The narrator summarizes Beth’s final days well:

“With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong, and though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim called was likewise the fittest, and waited with her on the shore, trying to see the Shining Ones coming to receive her when she crossed the river.” (Alcott, p. 476)

Jo’s Reckoning
Of those who wait with Beth on that proverbial “shore” before her death, none do so more faithfully than second sister Jo, and it is Jo who is also most changed by her own grief and by Beth’s example as Beth slips away. Jo is the opposite of Beth in every way – loud, stubborn, adventurous, and mischievous – and yet, of the four March sisters, the bond between these two is perhaps the closest and most tender. So, upon learning the hard truth of Beth’s impending death, Jo’s natural first response entails anger and rebellion. But as Jo devotedly cares for this beloved sister, rarely leaving her side as her days wane, Jo softens and learns to love and serve ever more willingly, and after Beth’s passing, Jo learns to live without despair, painful as her loss remains.
Eliza Scanlen as Beth and Saoirse Ronan as Jo in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" (2019) [Source: YouTube] 

As the narrative winds through Beth’s final days, Jo wrestles with resentment over losing Beth, but also allows her gentle sister to become her teacher in qualities she has always struggled to absorb. Historically, Jo was the brave and wild one, while Beth was quiet, meek, and looked up to Jo. But at this stage of the story, their roles are reversed as Beth’s courage to meet death teaches Jo greater humility and care for others. The narrator expresses Jo’s growth in bittersweet tones:

“…with eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart softened by the tenderest sorrow, [Jo] recognized the beauty of her sister’s life – uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which ‘smell sweet, and blossom in the dust,’ the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible to all.” (Alcott, p. 477) 

This painful maturation through loss is perhaps best expressed in a poem of Jo’s own writing which Beth accidentally finds on one of her last nights. The words are raw and honest about the ache of loss, but also demonstrate how Jo has accepted that she must learn to carry on with the virtues Beth has imparted to her. Even amidst heavy sorrow, Jo has clearly recognized her gains from years with Beth and even from watching her live out her final days with courage, as the poem expresses: 

“O my sister, passing from me,
Out of human care and strife,
Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
Which have beautified your life.
Dear, bequeath me that great patience
Which has power to sustain
A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit
In its prison-house of pain…

“…Thus our parting daily loseth
Something of its bitter pain,
And while learning this hard lesson,
My great loss becomes my gain.
For the touch of grief will render
My wild nature more serene,
Give to life new aspirations,
A new trust in the unseen.” (Alcott, p. 477-478) 

And after Beth’s passing, Jo does continue forward with new aspirations and trust. The ache of loss remains, but Beth’s influence and peace at death have changed Jo for the better, and she strives to live in keeping with those changes. With the help and love of family, Jo’s demeanor gentles and becomes more thoughtful, and she uses her energy and gifts with a view to serve others rather than her own ambitions. The book notes that her parents strive to help her “accept life without despondency or distrust, and to use its beautiful opportunities with gratitude and power” (Alcott, p. 497). And to her credit, Jo does, even while facing the most painful of losses, making her Beth’s dearest and most enduring legacy. 

Grieving Honestly and Hopefully
The journeys of grief for Beth in accepting her own death, and for Jo in observing it, never deny the heaviness or the need to face sadness honestly. Both of them feel their sorrow intensely and struggle to accept the tragedy, but they also look ahead through their tears and allow their grief to change them for the better. Beth and Jo may be fictional characters, but the world they inhabit in Little Women wrestles with pain just as much as my current real world of 2020. Indeed, grief feels particularly relevant for many right now, so I’ve loved revisiting this beloved favorite book with it in mind, and I’m grateful for how Beth and Jo have reminded me to grieve honestly and with tears, but also with hope. 

Reference: Alcott, L. M. (1868). Little Women. New York: Scholastic Inc.
Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scalen as Meg, Amy, Jo, and Beth March in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" (Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave)
A few days after Christmas, I settled in for the latest screen adaptation of Little Women, this time directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Irish gem Saoirse Ronan as the iconic Jo March. Somewhat to my own surprise (book purist here), I was deeply charmed and touched. The film is an aesthetic feast between its beautiful scenery, music, and production, and it presents Louisa May Alcott’s tale of domestic trials and delights with fresh potency. At its center are sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, each of whom learns to chart a path forward within the confines of post-Civil War America. Generations of fans, including me, have debated each sister’s merits and most sympathetic qualities. However, on this journey through the familiar story, I found myself identifying strongly with a character who often sits more on the edge of the Marches’ family dynamic. We meet Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, here portrayed with eager, thoughtful spirit by Timothée Chalamet, as the lonely boy next door. Though he does not remain lonely, I still found his perspective a poignant reminder of the reality of loneliness, and at various points in the story, the March sisters must also face their own struggles with isolation and pain. Between Laurie’s journey and the other hardships weathered by the March family, I saw a stirring search for companionship and a true home that I think many will recognize.

Laurie first meets the March family when he escorts Jo and an injured Meg home in his carriage after a dance, and his bewilderment at the domestic scene that greets him is evident. The sisters noisily talk over each other, everyone hurries to tend Meg’s sprained ankle, and the kindly March matriarch (played winningly by Laura Dern) hands Laurie a scone as she says cheerfully, “Just call me Mother or Marmee – everyone does!” Laurie has the look of one who has stumbled upon something rare and mysterious. We find that, for him, it is indeed mysterious, as he was orphaned young and now has the company only of his reticent grandfather and a kind but stern tutor. As his friendship with the Marches grows, it’s clear that Laurie sees in them the warmth, family, and human connection he has always been without, and his hunger for it is palpable. Throughout the film, the camera often catches Laurie watching the sisters and Marmee as if trying to work them out, as if admiring their close camaraderie and wanting to find a way in.

As I watched, I felt most like Laurie in some scenes – watching from the outside and longing for the companionship seen in the sisters and Marmee. His position points to the prevalence of loneliness and reaches out a sympathetic hand to the viewer who may be in its throes. It certainly did for me. Watching the March sisters gather around a family fire, put on a play for Marmee, or wrestle each other on the floor gave rise to those familiar heartaches. My own battles with loneliness gave sharp contrast to those scenes in which the Marches gathered around their table in delighted unity. The sisters’ rocking laughter during their childhood games made me long for happy, uncomplicated family and friendship dynamics. Like Laurie, I felt like I was watching something that was out of reach for me personally.

The March sisters with Laura Dern as Marmee (Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave)
And, in a way, the warmth and love and companionship I saw among the characters of Little Women are indeed out of reach right now. At the beginning of time, perfect harmony reigned, but then the world was broken by sin. We have the promise of a new creation coming, where hunger for love and connection will finally be satiated and all relationships will be made right again. But until then, we must fight to believe in that promise and work to be signposts of that coming fulfillment. It isn’t till the end of time that family and friendship will truly be uncomplicated by sin, that fellowship will be as warm and intimate and caring as it’s meant to be, and that no one will feel like an outsider anymore.

Little Women reflects this journey from harmony, to brokenness, and back to harmony, in how it contrasts Laurie and the sisters’ childhoods with their adulthood. One of the best directorial choices on Gerwig’s part was to unfold the narrative in flashback. The film anchors in what is the middle of Alcott’s book, when the March women and Laurie are in the grip of adult growing pains. Frequent flashbacks to their more idyllic childhoods emphasize the intrusion of hardship. We see that even though the Marches quickly enfolded Laurie as a brother, he is not immune to loneliness in other forms. He faces bitter disappointment when Jo refuses to marry him, and isolation once again ensues for a time. What’s more, even this family he idealizes also struggles mightily. The world they live in is one of poverty, war, and death. Marmee, the unconquerable backbone of the Marches, speaks of her near-constant battle with anger and sees deep grief both during and after the war. Fiercely stubborn Jo longs for independence, but near the film’s end, even she admits to desperate loneliness and a desire to be loved. From beginning to end, the story rings with yearning for home, family, and love. In a particularly poignant scene, Beth asks Jo if she misses Laurie despite her recent rejection of him, and Jo quietly answers, “I miss everything.”

Emma Watson as Meg, Saoirse Ronan as Jo, and Florence Pugh as Amy (Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave)
It took time for me to notice it, but one understated technique in the film that lends weight to the story arc is in the camera work’s color filtering. The scenes of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Laurie’s childhoods are cast in warm, golden light, highlighting how their earlier years seem simpler and more innocent. Juxtaposed against these are the sequences of their complicated, trial-filled adulthood, which are framed in darker, grayer hues. But, as the film progresses, the flashbacks and flash-forwards grow closer together in time, building to an ending scene that is the culmination of everything the various characters have been longing for. As the family picnics on a beautiful sunlit lawn, children frolic, food is shared, and Marmee radiates love and pride. Jo has new purpose in her step, clearly content in the roles of published author and new wife (that’s how I’m reading it, anyway. Again, book purist here, guys). Notably, Laurie has reentered the March family fold by marrying Amy, who has loved him faithfully, albeit firmly, through his previous disappointment and has helped him become a better man in the process. In some of the final shots, Laurie cradles their new baby as he and Amy join the family table. No longer does he or anyone else look like an outsider, and laughter and harmony reign once again. And this scene is cast in the same golden colors used in the childhood sequences, subtly but powerfully noting that the story has come full circle, and that everyone has come home. It made me ache with sweet hope for the day that I’ll be home too.

The family reunited! (Photo Credit: JA Monkey)

Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet as Amy and Laurie (Photo Credit: Tumblr)