Ask Katharine Weber about the reception of her new novel, The Little Women, and you get a torrent of words about the book she didn't write. "I have not written The Wind Done Gone; I have not written The Wide Sargasso Sea. God knows I have not written The Hours. I've written a book that I hope is provocative because it's so not Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. You could say that I've appropriated very literally from the Alcott work, but that doesn't mean that I want my novel to be read very literally, looking only for those appropriations. It's not a puzzle to solve. It's in no way meant to be taken as a modern-day retelling or a sequel. It's a novel set in the present and it's about three sisters who are pissed off at their parents. It's meant to be read as a novel on its own. I mean it to be amusing and entertaining."
The novel, just out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is the contemporary story of three siblings living a protected upper-middle-class life in Manhattan who discover that their adored mother has had an affair. Outraged that their mother has destroyed the principles of moral behavior that she herself inculcated in them, the two younger girls, Joanna ("Jo") and Amy, precipitously leave home and join their older sister, Meg, in New Haven, where she is an undergraduate at Yale. The narrative then tracks their gradual realization that their puritanical reaction is in its way as damaging as their mother's fall from grace, especially (and ironically) after Meg engages in an affair that mirrors her mother's transgression.
Weber reiterates her discomfiture that some critics have faulted the book for not being a sequel to its namesake. She wanted to write about the loss of innocence in a contemporary family, she says, an idea that came to her after reading Little Women relatively late in life. "I never read Little Women as a child the way just about every other woman has. I happened to read it when I was in my early 40s, when I was the mother of two adolescent girls. I wasn't trolling for ideas. But reading Little Women at that time in my family life, something began to come together for me. I was reading it as a novelist. It occurred to me that though it's a real perennial, a favorite, it's somehow off the map. Maybe because it's very rarely taught. You read it privately, alone, and at the same time, if you're a young girl, you bond with your friends who are reading it, too. So I was fascinated by its place in the world of books, and I was fascinated by the author's own relationship to the book."
Intellectually energized, Weber went to Orchard House in Concord, Mass., and took the tour. "I was intrigued when the docents freely confused episodes in the book with events in the life of the Alcott family. It was eye-opening to me because I feel that one element of its popularity is a false sense of authenticity. That was where my novel began for me.
"I was thinking about the dilemmas of that time as opposed to the world today, and I was also thinking about the way we read novels now—as a substitute for reality. Little Women is about how to be good: morality by example. Fallibility never entered into the portrait of the mother, who is saintly. I wanted to make her real. I was reading her as a mother myself. And I got the idea of the mother who transgresses, who doesn't hold up the ideal. So I took the framework and turned it upside down."
Her explanation is echt-Weber: voluble, outspoken, awesomely articulate. Weber's personality seems to have only one range: high speed, revealing a keen intelligence ferociously focused on the subject at hand. She takes a breath, pours a cold drink for PW.
We are talking on the screened porch of her house in rural Connecticut, where she lives with her husband, the art historian and writer Nicholas Fox Weber. (Two daughters are college age and away; a Scottie called Lester and a cat named Pearl have been left behind. Their names, Weber quips, make them sound like residents of an old-folks' home.) The house, which sits on five acres and includes a pond and Weber's writing studio, is on property that abuts the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, of which Nick is executive director. Dating back to 1740, with an addition the Webers added in 1981, the house is a delightful warren of small rooms distinctively cluttered with hundreds of prints and paintings and laden bookshelves. (One bathroom alone holds 33 framed sketches and a bookshelf over the door.) A Balthus sketch that is the study for The Three Sisters, the painting that provides the jacket illustration for The Little Women, hangs in the living room. There's also a sketch of Weber's maternal grandmother, songwriter Kay Swift, by George Gershwin, and a Dufy oil still life that Gershwin gave to Swift and she willed to Weber.
Characteristically, Weber speaks freely about Kay Swift's relationship to Gershwin as collaborator and lover. (Swift was married to James P. Warburg at the time.) Swift was one of the artists featured on the recent PBS documentary American Masters: Yours for a Song, the Women of Tin Pan Alley, where Weber was an assured on-screen commentator on her grandmother's career. While Weber describes her grandmother as "someone who believed the world could be a wonderful place," to Swift's children, her artistic creativity and joie de vivre were overshadowed by her extramarital liaison. "My mother was the middle of three sisters. Her mother had an affair that occupied her childhood in a way that was damaging to everybody. So I grew up in a family where there was a lot of history and a lot of lies and secrets." Yet Weber adored her grandmother and has worked tirelessly to preserve Swift's work; she and Nick are coexecutors of the Kay Swift Foundation, which has arranged for a historical re-recording of Fine and Dandy, with lyrics by Swift and music by Warburg. It was the first Broadway show with lyrics by a woman, Weber says with pride.
While she freely discusses her family background when appropriate, Weber is firm in believing that readers should not look for a direct autobiographical link in her novels. "When you have written a novel or two, people ask you, is it autobiographical, which parts really happened. You can explain that the sensibility may be autobiographical, but the events never happened. I'm fascinated by the way people look for the truth in novels, and the way they look for reality in general. As the people in the White House are becoming less real, less truthful, we have shows like Survivor that show 'real life.' "
The obsession with reality affects the way even the most intelligent reader reads fiction, Weber says. She feels that publishers are guilty of peddling the backstories of books and personal element of the author's life. "This troubles me. I'm the rare author who doesn't have an acknowledgments page. I don't want to know whatever personal background inspired a novel. I think the reader's experience shouldn't be diluted in that way."
Having written two previous novels, she knows that readers and even critics confuse the author with the narrator. The narrator of her first novel, Objects in the Mirror Are Closer ThanThey Appear, is Harriet Rose, a Jewish girl from Forest Hills, where Weber grew up, and the similarity led people to believe the book was autobiographical. (Harriet makes a felicitous reappearance as a character in The Little Women.) For her second novel, The Music Lesson, Weber deliberately chose a woman of Irish extraction who hails from Boston. "Readers should be satisfied with fiction being fiction. But we are reading fiction through this lens of: did this really happen," she says heatedly.
But because Louisa May Alcott did use some autobiographical material for her novel, Weber wondered how Alcott's sisters felt about the way their lives had been borrowed. "I found myself thinking of the liberties that Alcott must have taken in rendering actual incidents. I came up with the idea of letting the characters on whom my novel is based have their say." Naturally, they see things as too true-to-life and also as too deviant from the way they "really" happened. Weber decided to end most chapters with "reader's notes," appended by Meg and Amy, and replies in the form of "author's notes," by narrator Jo. In effect, this subtext forms a second novel that runs through the narrative. Because of the use of this conceit, Weber says, The Little Women also becomes a novel about the way people read novels.
Despite her vexation that her title has aroused false expectations in some readers, Weber was aware while writing the book that she was taking a risk by exploiting a classic novel that has gained a strong mystique. "I expect argument. I don't expect it to be a book that everybody is going to love. Some people love Little Women so much that The Little Women will be taken as a trespass no matter what." She thinks her best readers will come from book clubs. "This book could have a life of its own among book groups. It invites a conversation, a dialogue."
The novel is liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, and one character plays with words obsessively. You know these characters have grown up with books. "Literary references are where you find truth," Weber says. This preoccupation with books and with word play is characteristic of Weber herself. She likes to shock people by saying that she's the only professor at Yale who has neither a college degree nor a high school diploma. The real story: she left home at age 16 when she was recruited for the debut year of the New School college program, left there to work in various jobs in publishing and for an architectural firm, was married at 20, attended Yale for two years in the 1980s and has been teaching there since 1997.
She calls her new novel "a valentine to English departments everywhere" and a slice of campus life. When her two daughters read the book, she was flattered by their reaction. Each was startled at how closely she had been listening to the way they talk. "My ear is for a small socioeconomic slice of society—undergrads."
The sometimes acerbic Weber turns rapturous when she talks about her new publisher, FSG. (Her first two novels were published by Crown, but she felt stranded because her editors there, Peter Ginna and Anne Patty, had both left.) "I love John Glusman. I want him to be my editor for the rest of our lives. I love walking in there and seeing the peeling paint." While it's a truism that you go with FSG "for the prestige, not the money," Weber mentions a hefty amount for a two-book contract.
She fondly describes her agent, Gloria Loomis, as "the marvelous hybrid of a mother hen and a barracuda. That is, she is a mother hen and she can be a barracuda. She set up an auction for 17 houses for Objects in the Mirror and no one bid. But she stuck with it. I'm thrilled they turned her down because when Crown took it I got Peter [Ginna] as editor." On the strength of her debut, Weber made the long-list of Granta's Best American Writers Under 40. Weber is wry: "I just made the cut-off; it was about five seconds before I turned 40," she says.
Shortly after we speak, she is off to Paris, where the Webers maintain an apartment acquired when Nick was researching his biography of Balthus; now he's using it for a base as he writes a book on Le Corbusier. Then she'll go to their little cottage in County Cork, Ireland, which she calls "my own little Yaddo," to work on her second novel for FSG, a story that uses the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as background. It was inspired by her paternal grandmother, a proletarian of fiery political ideals, who providentially had left a job at the factory a year before the conflagration. Once again, Weber says, the novel embodies her favorite theme, "the past bubbling up into the present."
Changing her focus is one of Weber's credos. "I never want to write the same novel twice. I never want to write in the same way twice. In my novel, Jo says something that Philip Roth once said to me: 'The novel's about what it's about. It's not about what it's not about.' " There's a tone of challenge in her voice, a clear indication that this literary iconoclast intends to push the boundaries whenever she can.