By Kelly O'Connor McNees (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 352 pages, $24.95)

I always had a hard time making a logical connection between homey, comfortable "Little Women," and its severe author, the unmarried daughter of the somewhat wacky transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. When I read about the life of Louisa May Alcott, it was all about deprivation and near-starvation at the failed commune of Fruitland. None of it jibed with the gentle Marmee and the strong-minded Jo eating apples in the garret and scribbling away at stories. Kelly O'Connor McNees sought to fill in that disconnect by writing this book, and I'm so glad she did. It's a charming novel, grounded in scholarship and fact but relying on imagination for the romance and fun. McNees discovered in reading biographies of Alcott that there was one summer about which very little was known -- the summer of 1855, right before Louisa went off to Boston to become a writer. Here, McNees gives us that summer, creating a bittersweet love affair for Louisa and presenting her with the choice of marriage or career. We already know which she chose -- there are all those lovely books -- and so McNees' challenge was to get us there in a believable and satisfying way. And so she did, with a Jo-like Louisa, awkward and coltish, uncomfortable with tenderness, so determined not to fall in love that when she does, she falls like a ton of bricks.



By Shilpi Somaya Gowda (William Morrow, 346 pages, $23.99)

Some of the best contemporary novels about families and what it means to be American are being written by Indian- or Pakistani-Americans, many of them women. I've read and admired a lot of them lately, and "Secret Daughter," Californian Shilpi Somaya Gowda's debut, is my favorite. It's the story of Asha, the adopted daughter of two California doctors who have created a somewhat shaky bicultural family, and her search for her roots in India. Though Gowda's writing is occasionally a little stilted and talky, her novel is captivating and ultimately very wise. Spanning 23 years and two continents, it alternates between telling the impressively complicated stories of Asha's extended adoptive family and of her birth parents in India. The scenes set in the remote Indian village of Asha's birth and in the slums of Mumbai, especially those focused on Asha's illiterate and courageous birth mother, Kavita, are especially vivid and heart-rending. This novel travels far in the world, and deep into the human heart.

PAMELA MILLER, Night metro editor