By Any Name
Striding across the Officer’s Club in a bright orange flowered dress, orphan and USO dancer Rida (“Like Rita Hayworth, only with a d”) Smith is as far from the pastel-and-pearl clad Bostonian debutantes Spencer Howland grew up with as a woman could be. It’s World War Two and Spencer is a fish-out-of-water, both in the Navy and in raucous wartime Hawaii. Rida is vibrant, outspoken, and fearless, immediately charming the bookish and obedient Spencer. Smitten, he brings his unconventional war bride back to Boston, to the chagrin of the upper-crust Howland family. Rida’s life unfolds over decades of Spencer’s devotion, but also decades of clashes with Boston society. Told by her youngest daughter, Beth, with parenthetical interjections from all four daughters, this isn’t precisely Rida’s story. It’s the story of Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth—named for Alcott’s characters, though not, as smart and contrary Beth points out, in the right order—and their Mumma. It’s the story of growing up smothered by and pushing against Mumma’s strength and, in the process, finding their own strengths as women.
Cynthia Voigt, beloved for her children’s and young adult fiction, offers an adult novel that nonetheless touches on the anxieties and uncertainties of growing up. Both Rida and Spencer are products of their upbringing, but don’t see the impact they have on their own daughters, which is brought out in the hindsight-laden narration. The style of narration does serve to keep Rida at a distance—the reader isn’t allowed to get close enough to know what she’s thinking—but, by viewing Rida from her daughters’ perspective, we come to understand her as they do, as a women willing to grab life with both hands on behalf of those she loves.