When the publisher offered me a review copy of Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor I hesitated. It featured Emily Dickinson. I generally don’t accept books like this but Emily Dickinson is a favorite of mine and O’Connor is not a newbie author nor is she a nobody, so I thought I’d take a chance especially since the publisher offered a second book to give away.
I’ve been finished with the book for over a week and debating about what to say. You see, I didn’t care for it all that much. I wanted to be excited about the book, I really did. I spent time trying to convince myself to be excited about it, thinking about what I did like instead of what I didn’t. But I just couldn’t do it. So please forgive me if this review lacks enthusiasm. Miss Emily is not a bad book at all. It is well written and has some good things in it. I am just not the ideal reader for it. Maybe you are though so allow me to tell you a bit about it.
Miss Emily is one of those two narrator books with the story told in alternating chapters from the limited perspective of the two characters. The characters here are Emily Dickinson herself and the Dickinson family’s new maid-of-all-work. Fresh off the boat from Ireland, seventeen-year-old Ada Concannon is smart, skilled and spirited. It is her spiritedness that has gotten her sent to America to begin with. She lost a couple jobs in Dublin and word was getting out which would make it harder for her to get a good placement in another house. Her mother’s sister and brother-in-law are already in America, Amherst to be exact, and well established with good reputations. So off Ada goes on the boat. Just as she gets settled in at her aunt and uncle’s, word arrives that the Dickinson’s are looking for a new maid for cooking, cleaning and all the other household work that maids do.
Ada fits in well with the Dickinson household. She takes her work seriously, likes the family, and Emily takes a shine to her. The two become friends of a sort since Emily spends so much time in the kitchen baking bread and cakes. Ada starts seeing Daniel Byrne, local horse whisperer and it seems like life can’t get any better. Into paradise comes Patrick Crohan, lazy, mean and a drinker. He takes a shine to Ada who continually refuses his advances. So Crohan sneaks into the Dickinson’s house one night and rapes her. On this point turns the entire second part of the book.
Up until Ada’s rape I was mostly enjoying the book even though there was really nothing going on in terms of plot or anything particularly interesting at all. So when Ada is raped it serves solely as a plot point and a tired one at that. This frustrated me to no end because, while Ada does not get pregnant she does get gonorrhea. She tries to keep everything a secret because she is ashamed. Of course it doesn’t stay secret and we get the usual spectrum of it was Ada’s fault to Ada was the victim. And when Daniel finally finds out he decides to take justice into his own hands.
Emily herself portrayed so that at times she seems like she is a child and other times a grown woman. There is tension between her and her sister-in-law, Sue. It is a curious relationship with Sue married with children and treating Emily like a dear, intimate friend and Emily treating Sue at times like a lover. At one point Sue and Emily are in a close embrace and Ada walks in on them. Ada doesn’t find it odd even though she realizes she interrupted a private moment. Sue isn’t disturbed by it either. But Emily is. Emily gets a little angry and behaves as though she had been caught doing something she should not have.
There are some nice moments in the book with Emily thinking about her writing and what it means to her. It is these moments that kept me from completely disliking the book. In her solitude Emily thinks things like this:
Oh, chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console. I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn. And when I feel as if a tomahwak has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.
This echoes a real letter Dickinson wrote, and probably never sent, “I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont [sic] hurt me much.” In fact much of Dickinson’s portion of the narrative echoes of her words and poetry. That is probably why I liked her part better than Ada’s.
Nonetheless, I am not quite certain what the aim of the novel is. The events in the book are not based on any real events. Ada is entirely made up. I don’t feel like I have any better insight into Emily Dickinson the person. And Ada’s story feels terribly cliche to me. While I didn’t care for the story, as I said before, the writing itself is good. In fact, I think the writing is the only thing that kept me reading the book to the end.
If you think you may like the book more than I did and want your name tossed into a hat for a chance to win a copy from the publisher, do say so in the comments. Unfortunately, only folks with U.S. addresses are eligible. Sorry about that. I will draw a name Friday afternoon (August 21st).