A book to be enjoyed slowly and savored like the sweets the poet liked so much

Miss Emily: A Novel - Nuala O'Connor

Thanks to Net Galley for providing me a complimentary copy of this novel in exchange for a review.

I spent a year at Mount Holyoke College and visited Amherst often. And one of the first places I went to was for a visit to the house and museum of Emily Dickinson (and I was living at Dickinson House at Mount Holyoke, where the Centre for Women’s Studies resides).

I’ve always been intrigued by Emily Dickinson and this novel did not disappoint me. It achieves what for me is the trademark of great historical fiction, it makes historical characters and a time and place come to life, without becoming a textbook. It creates a sense of place and it submerges the readers in an era distant from their own.

The author provides enough detail of the period and places to transport us there, and in this case I felt the major strength of the novel was its psychological insights into the minds of the characters, Emily Dickinson and the fictional character of Ada Concannon. Each one of them take turns to tell the story from their point of view, in first person, present tense, and although the differences in language and education couldn’t be wider, the two women bond over a common interest in baking and a kindness of spirit and curiosity for the other’s world and life. Emily accepts and does not question Ada’s religious beliefs and what she sees as her superstitions, and Ada is non-judgemental about Emily’s rituals, reclusiveness and life-style.

The language captures beautifully Emily’s poetry and her creative process, and it reflects the differences between the two women and the other characters around them. The relationships between Emily and members of her family and friends are understated as it would correspond to the period and there are feelings and interests hinted at but never fully developed, in keeping with the sense of propriety of the era.

If Ada’s character is partly a way of providing an outsider’s perspective into Emily’s life, it also tells the story of Irish emigration to the US by sharing different experiences and very personal ones. Ada’s troubles also help highlight some of the difficulties women would have confronted at the time, and what the general attitude towards them might have been. Although these elements might be seen as detracting from the focus of the story I felt they created a more rounded reading experience.

I particularly enjoyed the amount of domestic detail, the cooking, the descriptions of smells, tastes, textures, colours that complement Emily Dickinson’s poetry. A book to be enjoyed slowly and savoured like the sweets the poet was so fond of.