The American debut of an award-winning Irish writer that brings to life Emily Dickinson and will enthrall fans of Longbourn and Mrs. Poe.
Nuala O’Connor’s enchanting American debut novel, Miss Emily, reimagines the private life of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most beloved poets, through her own voice and through the eyes of her family’s Irish maid.
Eighteen-year-old Ada Concannon has just been hired by the respected but eccentric Dickinson family of Amherst, Massachusetts. Despite their difference in age and the upstairs-downstairs divide, Ada strikes up a deep friendship with Miss Emily, the gifted elder daughter living a spinster’s life at home. But Emily’s passion for words begins to dominate her life. She will wear only white and avoids the world outside the Dickinson homestead. When Ada’s safety and reputation are threatened, however, Emily must face down her own demons in order to help her friend, with shocking consequences. – Goodreads
Emily Dickinson’s work was my introduction to poetry. When I was a child, my mother embroidered and framed my favourite Dickinson poem and hung it on my bedroom wall, where it remained for years. And yet, until this book, I knew very little about the poet or her life.
What I did know before going into this book could have fit on the back of a (very small) postcard: reclusive (possibly agoraphobic), rarely socialized yet wrote insightful poetry about the human condition, never married or had children (possibly homosexual). You’ll notice my lack of certainty throughout.
So going into this book, I had little in the way of preconception, except I knew there was a risk of a somewhat depressing read. Of course the other thing I didn’t know going into this book was just what its author is capable of. I’d never heard of her, let alone read any of her work, so I had no idea that I was about to step into such a vibrant, finely-drawn world.
In Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor re-imagines Emily’s home life from the perspective of Emily’s Irish maid, Ada, and from Emily’s own point of view. The two women, despite being employer and employee, become fast friends. Which doesn’t sound like much when it’s summed up that way, but the depth of emotional connection and loyalty that develops between these two as the story progresses made it one of the best female friendships I’ve encountered thus far on the page.
O’Connor’s choice to split the narrative and utilize Ada’s character to move the plot forward and beyond Emily’s limited realm was brilliant. Through Ada we are able to see not only what her own life was like (she is an Irish immigrant who had to work hard to earn her place in the new world), but the many positive qualities Emily herself possessed. She forms the canvas onto which Emily’s story can be painted in bright colour.
There are some difficult characters and even more difficult events in this book. The time period itself also lends challenges – both in terms of day-to-day life and the position of women and, even more so, female servants. This is an aspect that cannot be overlooked, and one that will trigger frustration in the reader on Ada’s behalf. This isn’t a sweet, chaste story, but one that shows both the idyllic and hellish aspects of dealing with the opportunities and limitations both Emily and Ada encountered.
I didn’t expect this book to be as easy to get into, nor did I expect it to draw me in and refuse to let me go. For a book about a reclusive poet, this book is packed with everything that makes a good story: romance, family drama, and a dastardly villain. It’s a quick read; you could easily devour the whole story in a day of summertime reading. In fact, I recommend doing so.
This book will particularly appeal to fans of Emily Dickinson as well as those who enjoy creative historical fiction that focuses as much on the human commonalities we share with historical figures as it does on contrasting the world they lived in with the one we currently inhabit. Definitely one of this summer’s most surprising (in a good way) new releases.
**Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!**
Book Title: Miss Emily
Author: Nuala O’Connor
Published By: Penguin Canada
Released: July 14, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction, Poetry
Date Read: May 18-24, 2015
Follow the Author on Twitter: @NualaNic