The Novelty of Emily

Emily Dickinson is a poet whom many of us know thanks to high school or collegiate English classes. But for all the insight we have into her personality through the words she’s published, there’s still an air of mystery surrounding her hermitic life. Within the pages of Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor, readers are afforded a glimpse into the life and world of the prolific poet.

Emily is considered an eccentric by her neighbors as she prefers a life of solitude with her thoughts and words for company. Ada Concannon is freshly arrived to America from Ireland, eager to make her way in the world and have a different life than what she might have were she to stay at home. The two women are drawn together when Ada becomes a servant in the Dickinson household; the kitchen and baking are commonalities between the women, offering them a starting point for a friendship. With Emily suffering from agoraphobia, she lives vicariously through Ada’s external life, particularly as it relates to a budding romance. When Ada is attacked by a lout, Emily is must face her fears to help aid the protection of her newest friend’s reputation or bear further scrutiny from her neighbors.

The prose was fitting to the time period and stations of each woman with a narrative that moved along without a drudgery that can often be found in literature of this era. Perhaps this was due to the brevity of the narrative; it could have been fleshed out a bit more to offer a more comprehensive sense of Emily and Ada. Alternating chapters with the perspectives of Emily and Ada offered two views of each character–how they saw themselves and how others saw them. This helped to develop a sense of self in the characters and foster the reader’s contemplation on how society tends to value a person’s self-worth. In Emily, we have the oddity of an upper class citizen and in Ada we have the stability of a devoted working class citizen. Each has their own merits and strengths, which complement one another. With a character study doused with some sexual intrigue, O’Connor shows that we haven’t come too far from the past in regard to sexual attacks and victims openly discussing their ordeals.

Overall, I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars.


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