Published July 2015 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my Netgalley copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review
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.
Years ago (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I first encountered the poems of Emily Dickinson but only then knew that she had been a recluse and have learned little more of her since that time. It has always struck me as remarkable that she was able to write such insightful poems about life when she lived such a sheltered one.
In Miss Emily, Nuala O'Connor creates an explanation as to why Emily became a recluse through the story of an imagined friendship between Emily and Ada. As told, alternatively, from both women's point of view, O'Connor does a fine job of giving both of them their own voice.
While the book may be title Miss Emily it is, perhaps, even more Ada's story and the story of all of the servant-class women of the time. From the time she rose before the family to have their breakfast ready to the time she could finally collapse at the end of the day, Ada (and all of those women like her) were completely at the whim and mercy of the people for whom they worked. Having been raised to believe such is her lot in live, Ada never balks when she's reminded that she isn't being paid to chat, even when it is with Emily. It was rare for them to find in their masters a friend and ally, such as Ada found in Emily.
Their friendship makes an interesting tool for O'Connor to explore what lay behind Emily Dickinson's greater and greater seclusion from the world. After reading the book, I did, as I so often do after reading fictionalized accounts of a real person's life, research on Dickinson. I found that O'Connor has clearly done her own research and thoroughly grounded her story of Emily on the known facts and theories...of Emily's relationship with her parents, her brother and sister-in-law and her relationship with words. O'Connor touches on Mrs. Dickinson's "bouts of repressed spirits and illness," Mr. Dickinson's hovering over Emily's health "like a nervy physician," and how her once beloved brother, Austin has "hardened; levity has been leached from his very blood." In Emily's relationship with Austin's wife, Sue, O'Connor dares to suggest that Emily and Sue may have been more than just friends - "She makes me thin of the biggest things, the best things, and it is my hope that we will lie together in the churchyard at the end. She may be Austin's truly, but she is also mine." As much as I enjoyed Ada's story, it was Emily's voice that really spoke to me.
"...it is not only words that keep me here, I know that. It is a fact that if I do not leave the house, I cannot lose myself; I am better contained in my home, looking inward; this is where I best function."It was also in Emily's voice that I really felt O'Connor's own poetic voice come alive.
"From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinary-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with color."