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Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor
Pub. Date: July 14, 2015
Source: Finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Penguin!!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Historical fiction, based on a real person
Recommended for: Fans of Emily Dickinson, readers looking for a quick, engaging read

Every time I review a book based on a real historical figure, be it a giant, a suffragette, or a First Lady, I like to mention that I’ve come to dub this sub-genre Biographical Fiction. I have absolutely no idea whether or not this is an actual term, but it works so it’s stuck. To be honest, it’s probably my all-time favorite genre, this genre-within-a-genre (okay, Xzibit.)

Emily Dickinson, spinster daughter of a wealthy family, prefers spending her days alone with her thoughts and her writing. Unfortunately, with the departure of a maid, Emily has had to do her fair share of the work, cooking meals for the family, always dreaming of the day her father will hire a new girl to come in and take over. She eventually gets her wish in Ada, a teenager who recently (as in she arrived the day before she’s hired) left her family and home in Ireland in search of a new life. Despite the age difference, the pair hit it off and when Ada needs her the most, Emily realizes she’s stronger than she thinks.

Confession time: apart from Poe, I don’t particularly care for poetry, so Emily Dickinson is all but unknown to me. I don’t even know when she lived and couldn’t quite figure it out from the context clues given (late 1800s? Early 1900s??) Because of my blind ignorance of this woman and her works, I went into Miss Emily as I would any other novel and she became just another character. I wasn’t finding myself nitpicking over the little details – was this true?? Did this really happen? I could go off on a tangent here, but I’ll try to be brief. I truly feel that, unless you are confident in your ability to read without a bias and understand a work is historical FICTION, not historical FACT, it’s easier, possibly better, not to have prior knowledge of a subject. Take First Impressions, for example. I can already hear the gasps, but I have never read a single Jane Austen novel. So for me, reading a book where it was declared she not only didn’t write some of her famous works, but that she also stole ideas and characters was no big thing for me. Janeites, however, were in an uproar.

Because I took Miss Emily at face value, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride. I have no idea if she was really in love with her best friend/sister-in-law. I have no idea if she was as terrified of stepping outdoors as the book suggests.

Each chapter bounces between Emily and Ada and the chapter titles were a joy: Miss Emily Hides in the Garden, Miss Emily and Miss Ada Celebrate Birthdays, Miss Ada is Upset by a Visitor to the Homestead. These fun little snippets told me exactly what I was in for each chapter and I thought they were an excellent touch on a great story.

Emily and Ada are quick to strike up a friendship and it wasn’t until I was well into the book that I realized just how many years separated the two! I believe Emily at this time would have been going on 40, yet her sheltered innocence makes her come across as much, much younger. That said, Emily is fierce in her loyalty and when Ada needs her, Emily is right there by her side, despite the looks and snide remarks from her family and friends about getting too close to someone so ‘beneath’ her.

While I could have done without the use of sexual assault as a means to further the plot, I devoured Miss Emily in a single sitting (though I’m sure it being only 230 pages helped!) Between the richly detailed setting, wonderful female friendships, and excellently crafted characters, Nuala O’Connor has certainly caught my attention and I’m positive both fans of Miss Dickinson as well as newcomers to the poet’s work will feel right at home within its pages.

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3 thoughts on “Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

  1. Like you, I’m not overly familiar with Emily Dickinson (apart from the odd poem or two, at least). But this historical fiction account sounds utterly fascinating! I’m always intrigued by friendships between women in history, particularly when there are differences between them. Miss Emily sounds like a pretty diverting read!

  2. I’ve been curious about this book because I love the cover, and I know that’s a really shallow reason to add something to my TBR so I’ve been waiting to see a few reviews first. I’m glad I got to read yours, though I’m still undecided if I want to pick this one up. I really don’t know anything about Dickinson either, but this sounds like an intriguing story!

    I laughed at your mention of First Impressions. I will say that my issues with that book extend far beyond the way it presents Austen, since I strongly disliked Lovett’s writing style, characters and the numerous inaccuracies (not about Austen, just for that time period in general). And I’m not a fan of dual timelines or multiple POVs, so the book already had that working against it for me! That’s the kind of thing that throws me out a story – and then a questionable depiction of a favorite historical figure just adds insult to injury ;)

    I’ve read and very much enjoyed a book about Jane Austen as a vampire and plenty of spin-offs that have her characters doing very out-of-character things so, as with any book, it’s always hard to predict what will work and what won’t. Either way, I definitely think you’re right that the less familiar you are with any historical figure being fictionalized, the more likely you are to approach the story without expectations/bias. But whether or not you know and love the person in the story, I think your familiarity with the time period plays a big role. And that’s true of historical fiction in general! The more you know about the time period in the book, the more clearly you’ll see any errors.

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