Miss Emily

Written by Nuala O’Connor
Review by Arleigh Johnson

In this novel, Emily Dickinson is not a dark, morose woman, but a spritely thirty-something wishing for more time to ponder her thoughts and scribe her beloved words. The Dickinsons’ maid has recently left service, forcing Emily and her sister, Vinnie, to pick up the chores. Deliverance comes in the form of a young Irish immigrant, Ada Concannon, who not only takes over the kitchen with alacrity, but cautiously befriends the woman all of Amherst, Massachusetts finds strange and standoffish. Emily, in turn, fiercely defends the young Ada—seen as lowly to most of the affluent families connected with the Dickinson household.

This refreshing depiction of the American poet features a short period in the 1860s in which her family employed Ada—a fictional character related to one of the Dickinsons’ known Irish maids. Told in dual voices, the relationship between the responsible, but irrepressibly talkative and superstitious maid and her famously reclusive mistress is one of empathetic camaraderie and understanding on both sides. O’Connor’s characterization of Emily will resonate with fans of the poet for the care taken by the author to capture Emily Dickinson’s essence, yet without borrowing heavily from her verses. A major theme is Emily’s well-known transition to wearing only white—a peculiarity to others, but an easier wash day for Ada.

All aspects of the book—characterization, prose, setting and storyline—are in top form, setting this author apart from many who take on a rehash of a well-known and documented historical figure. Lyrical and beautifully written, this story should not be missed by fans of Emily Dickinson, or anyone simply looking for a great historical read.