Writer to Watch: Nuala O’Connor

IMG_4252Nuala 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.

 

Celebrated Days

10405657_10106229416396525_3529221544828816157_nDear Readers, it seems like just yesterday I was writing about We Do! American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality, and now look where we are! We’ve been celebrating not only the wonderful news about marriage equality over the past week with family and friends, but also the birth of our friends’ first baby (hi K and T and baby E!). Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem that reminds us to treasure, to celebrate, the present.

Emily Dickinson
Forever – is composed of Nows –

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –

“A little this side of the snow / And that side of the haze”

It is November, and high time for an Emily Dickinson poem.

Or two. I’m unpredictable.

[IN A LIBRARY]

A precious, mouldering pleasure ’tis
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,

His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.

His quaint opinions to inspect,
His knowledge to unfold
On what concerns our mutual mind,
The literature of old;

What interested scholars most,
What competitions ran
When Plato was a certainty.
And Sophocles a man;

When Sappho was a living girl,
And Beatrice wore
The gown that Dante deified.
Facts, centuries before,

He traverses familiar,
As one should come to town
And tell you all your dreams were true;
He lived where dreams were sown.

His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.

[NOVEMBER]

Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.

A few incisive mornings,
A few ascetic eyes, —
Gone Mr. Bryant’s golden-rod,
And Mr. Thomson’s sheaves.

Still is the bustle in the brook,
Sealed are the spicy valves;
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many elves.

Perhaps a squirrel may remain,
My sentiments to share.
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind,
Thy windy will to bear!

A Literary Wedding, or, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

our rings

Our wedding rings

We were married three years ago this week, back in the olden days before Pinterest provided endless helpful suggestions regarding how to personalize your wedding with monograms and mason jars.

Now, I love a mason jar as much as the next gal, but our last name’s initial looks a heckuva lot like a circle, so I didn’t (and don’t) see much point in monogramming anything. I think it would have confused people. (“Which table are you sitting at?” “Table 0.” “Oh, I thought we were at table O.” “Oh dear.”) Personalizing one’s wedding ought to mean something more than splashing one’s initials all over it in in perfect wildflower hues, right?

Our wedding would never make the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. We didn’t meticulously handcraft garlands of paper cranes from the pages of vintage books. We didn’t do favors, rice, confetti, a “real” wedding cake (we went with the Heart of Darkness chocolate torte, with mango coulis), or a “normal” ceremony.

What we did do was try very hard to make the wedding our own, an event that expressed not only who we are as a couple but where we came from — the people and words and music that shaped our lives.

The program included the line from “Birches” I’ve used in this post’s title, and Juliet’s immortal lines, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” The lettering on the front of the program used a font based on Jane Austen’s handwriting; on the last page we reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in memory of absent friends.

The processional was “Building the Barn” from Witness, because, well, just watch that part of the movie (bonus: Viggo Mortenson cameo!). And the recessional was “Everyone” by Van Morrison because, well, watch the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. But only if you’ve seen the beginning and the middle.

While guests waited they had the option of tinkering with a crossword we made about us, our friends, and families, or looking out over a little river and falls, or browsing in the bookstore.

Yes, we were married at a bookstore. Well, technically, we were married on a deck that’s part of a restaurant that’s located in an old mill that’s been converted into a used bookstore in a town called, of all things, Montague. But I just tell everyone that we were married at a bookstore. It’s easier that way.

[It’s lovely to be able to return to a place that holds such beautiful memories for us; we try to go back at least once a year. I’ll post pictures from our latest visit tomorrow.  I bet you’ll want to go there too.]

Our ceremony was comprised of the usual wedding bits, retooled to suit our beliefs and preferred wording, and literary readings. Each of us asked a parent, a sibling, a friend, and an aunt or uncle to read during the ceremony, in groups of two.

Which readings, you ask?

  • “In Lands I Never Saw,” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear
  • Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi
  • Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
  • “The Master Speed,” by Robert Frost
  • a selection from the Song of Songs
  • a selection from Emma, by Jane Austen
  • a selection from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can still hear each one of these people reading, people we love who shared these words that mean so much to us. Because a marriage ceremony is an act of speaking something into being, and it’s important to get the words right.

***

So, since today is Tuesday, and therefore a poetry day around these parts, I thought today I’d highlight a poem that wasn’t read at our wedding.

You read that right. We both love Robert Frost’s “Birches” — so much so that my husband’s wedding ring is etched to look like birch bark — but it is long, and not really related to marriage, so we chose a different Frost poem for our set of readings. Now, though, after three years and one child together, this poem has taken on even more significance to us. Sometimes I imagine my son as the boy in the poem, confident though solitary. Sometimes I turn to the poem when things get hard, as they are wont to do, when

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But above all, we love the poem for its abiding love for the beauty and promise of this world and its often-anonymous inhabitants. After all, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Three years later, at the bookmill.

Three years later, at the Bookmill.

Did you incorporate readings into your wedding ceremony? How did you choose your readings?