Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

20 Books of Summer 2019: Book 4

March by Geraldine Brooks gives a personality to Mr. March, the absent father in Little Women, who serves in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. It answers questions about what he did while away from his family and how he met/married Marmee. It was an uphill battle to enjoy this book on account of how much I dislike Little Women.

March was the first book I picked up this summer. I read the opening chapter and decided it would be a quick read, maybe something best set aside for August. I then read a couple other books, picked up The Underground Railroad (review here), then The Nickel Boys, also by Colson Whitehead, and returned to March.

Here’s the thing: If I had kept with March at the beginning of the summer, I might have liked it more. While both March and The Underground Railroad feature slavery, the difference in how this topic is handled by their respective authors makes March almost unreadable by comparison. As best I can explain it, Whitehead’s scenes of beatings and whippings are visceral, disturbing, and hard to shake. He didn’t write these scenes with fancy language because these moments don’t need dressing up. Compared to his no-nonsense tone, some of Brooks’s scenes are shallow, seemingly more about showing off her lyrical tone. There’s a difference between the writer who includes these moments to say something substantive (Whitehead) and the writer who includes these scenes to tick a historical box (Brooks).

“The whip fell, again, with an almost delicate precision, the second strip taken just one inch lower on the buttocks, in perfect parallel to the first.” (39)

Delicate? Granted “delicate” is describing the precision, not the nature of the whip itself, but it struck an inexpressibly sour note in my mind when I read this word in this context. It also struck a wrong note when March seemed to think more of his own misery at having to watch such a thing than to think of the woman whose skin was coming off a short distance from him.

March’s key quality is that he’s a staunch abolitionist, even building a space in his home to hide escaped slaves. His other quality is that he loves his wife and we hear again and again how her fire attracted him. Yet, in one scene, both of these qualities fall by the wayside:

“I have always considered,” Aunt March said, in the proud Boston accent she affected, “that slavery is more a matter for prayer than protest. Preferably,” she intoned, peering meaningfully over her half glasses at my voluble wife, “silent prayer.”
Marmee’s anger unsheathed itself. Her voice became cutting. “Why, I believe you would decline to keep company with that notorious radical, Jesus, were he to appear in Concord!”
My teacup rattled in my hand. Aunt March’s eyes narrowed. I placed my index finger on my lips—a sign we had agreed upon—when Marmee, remorseful after just such another outburst, had asked me to help her curb her temper. (118)

Marmee goes on, which March finds mortifying. A well-deserved one-liner is too much for him? He’s so dry and useless I can’t figure out why an entire book was written about him. How can he have nothing to say to his aunt about something he believes so strongly? How can he sit there and sulk at his wife for saying what he can’t? Whenever March has the opportunity to show something about his character through action, it contradicts how he describes himself. (Maybe Brooks is showing a hint of brilliance here that March sees himself as better than he really is.) There are plenty of impractically idealistic characters in literature, but their run-ins with the real world push them in one direction or another, they learn, grow, and change. That doesn’t happen here. March is steadfastly dull to the end.

The most terrible thing about reading this book is that it made me wonder how March’s family was getting on without him. I bet you could write a whole book about that… and before anyone asks how I could possible hate a beloved classic like Little Women:

<rant> Three of the four daughters whine until having the same epiphany: the grass is always greener on the other side, and they should console themselves with their wonderful family even though their family is too saccharine to even feature in a Hallmark movie. The fourth daughter doesn’t whine, but ultimately dies from a complete inability to advocate for herself. Each daughter represents a different stereotype of womanhood—none is an individual or particularly interesting. If you stuck all four in a blender, something approaching a character might dribble out. </rant>

Whew, I feel better now that’s off my chest.

Overall: 2.4 (out of 5.0) Ultimately, I’m not sure what March is meant to be. It has issues standard to historical fiction (how do the Marches know so many famous people?), in addition to fan-fiction woes (the characters are stuck on a predetermined arc).

Previously On:

  1. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  3.  You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

4 thoughts on “Review: March by Geraldine Brooks”

  1. It’s been several years since I read March. I had a slight advantage having quite liked Little Women but at the time the book didn’t really hit the mark for me. Reading your review sort of reminds me why all these years later. I much preferred her novel ‘People of the Book’ – it justified the high praise I’d read about her work and some of the comparisons I’d read between her and Marilynne Robinson.

    1. People of the Book sounds like it would be much better. I liked her writing style, but not for this story and these characters. So many books in the queue!!

      I sometimes feel bad for disliking Little Women so strongly since it’s such a classic. I wonder if I’m overlooking some hidden brilliance there.

  2. A wonderful review and your on Little Women is both hilarious and justified. The comfort of standard female stereotypes appears to be sufficient for the general reader! And I would have rated a lower score on the March book just based on the first quote you cited – that sounds like a poorly written scene from erotic romance! How can the term ‘delicate’ be used in the context of slavery – its awful. Shame on the writer and publisher for that crap!

    1. Other passages were much better written, or rather, the subject and style meshed better.

      I was torn on the rating and went with an average score. I disliked Mr. March intensely, but you can argue he’s well-written to provoke such a response. Even the “delicate” line: I think that word is woefully out of place, but I can see where someone would argue that this actually reflects how Mr. March is viewing the scene in his out-of-touch way. So it’s March’s issue, not the writer’s. That’s what I kept coming back to: How much of this is written in a slimy way because March himself is slimy, and how much is written this way because this book may be aging poorly?

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