Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily* is an upstairs/downstairs novel about Emily Dickinson and an imagined Irish maid-of-all-work. While it is Ms. O’Connor’s first novel published in the United States, she has published two novels, short stories, and poetry in the U.K. and Ireland, where she often writes under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir.
Miss Emily takes place over the course of a year or so, when 18-year-old Ada Concannon leaves Ireland for America, where she finds work in Amherst with the odd but locally esteemed Dickinson family. Chapters alternate between Ada’s voice and that of Emily Dickinson, who in her mid-30s is headed toward the seclusion she’s well known for. Despite the gaps in age, class, education, and origins, Ada and Emily form a friendship, trading recipes and observations about goings-on in the natural world.
The novel’s strongest aspects include its descriptions, particularly Ada’s recollections of Dublin and her grandmother’s cottage, and Ms. O’Connor’s rendering of Emily’s facility with language and adept way with peculiar images. Readers fond of realistic renderings of everyday life in historical fiction will find much to please them here.
Miss Emily moves very fast, thanks to its short chapters that change perspective, but I would have preferred a longer version with more expansion on the Dickinson family’s relationships and those within Ada’s family. Readers conversant with Emily Dickinson’s biography will pick up on the family dynamics, but those who don’t know much about the poet may find themselves lost at times.
Without giving too much away, I’d also add that I found the novel’s ending disappointing, shifting agency away from the main characters we’ve spent so much time with in favor of male characters who aren’t as fully drawn. In the last quarter of the novel, Emily and Ada react to events, rather than choosing their own paths, which is unfortunate and not in keeping with the tone of the novel’s first half.
Despite these issues, I’d still recommend Miss Emily for a quick summer read, and I’d be happy to read more of Ms. O’Connor’s writing, particularly her poetry. And I suspect that after you read this book, you’ll be curious to see, as I am, the Homestead, the Dickinson family home. I’ve lived about two hours from it for years, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to see it—but I hope to get out to Amherst later this summer, Emily Dickinson’s own words in hand.
You can read more about Nuala O’Connor here. And if you’re interested in visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum, you can read more about it here.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.