Review: Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
Source: Digital galley courtesy of Penguin Canada via NetGalley. Thank you!
Expected publication: July 14, 2015 by Penguin Canada
Verdict: Very Good/Excellent
Ada Concannon’s first day in America is a success. She’s the new maid for the respected but eccentric Dickinson family of Amherst, Massachusetts. Despite the differences in age and class, eighteen-year-old Ada, “a neat little Irish person, fresh off the boat,” strikes up a deep friendship with Miss Emily, the gifted elder daughter living a spinster’s life at home. Emily is a bastion of support as Ada struggles to find her place in this new world, while Ada’s toil gives Emily the freedom she needs to write.
But Emily’s passion for words begins to dominate her life. She decides to wear nothing but white and increasingly avoids the outside world. When Ada’s safety and reputation are threatened, however, Emily faces down her own demons in order to help her friend, with shocking consequences.
If you are looking for or in need of a tender and gorgeously written historical fiction title, Miss Emily might be it. An imagining of brief period of time in poet Emily Dickinson’s life and her time with (fictional) Irish maid Ada Concannon, Miss Emily is a study in passion, restraint and language. Told in alternating perspectives, readers are given inside looks into the distinct voices and disparate lives and privileges of Miss Emily and Miss Ada. O’Connor’s writing is, I think, genuinely beautiful. I don’t know how she was able to bring such believable earnestness, understanding and spirit to someone as unknowable as Dickinson, but she did- and did so wonderfully.
My one (and pretty much only!) qualm with the book is that the last quarter of the novel focuses almost solely on one particular story element and its aftermath. Violent and abhorrent in nature, the act effectively changes the remainder of Ada and Emily’s journey. O’Connor does not shy away from examining the gross gender prejudices that a young woman like Ada (a maid and of another country of origin) would have faced; she also outlines sexual ailments and historical medical treatments in an almost uncomfortable level of detail. On the one hand, this was illuminating reading, clearly thought-out and researched- and a heart-breaking story of effect. On the other hand, I feel as though this plot point took away from the Emily-Ada magnetism and Emily’s meditative/poetic narratives that I had been so enchanted by.
Do you need to be a fan of Emily Dickinson and her work to enjoy this novel? I would say not- though I must say that initially intrigued by this title because I have loved Dickinson’s work for years. I cannot stress enough how moved I was by O’Connor’s lovely turns of phrases, and how she was not only able to breathe life into an imagining of Emily Dickinson, but also able to cultivate stories that led the birth of some of Dickinson’s poems.
Overall, Miss Emily is a beautifully written novel. I was fully entrenched in Ada’s and Emily’s world during my reading, and would give this novel a solid recommendation. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, imaginings of author lives, or the work of authors such as Jo Baker, A.S. Byatt, Paula McLain, Kate Morton, Anna Freeman or Michelle Cooper might be especially drawn to this title.
I received this book as a digital galley from Penguin Canada via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.