Thursday, July 23, 2015

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Title: Miss Emily
Author: Nuala O’Connor / Nuala Ní Chonchúir

First line: July and there is crisis.

Review: This lovely, slender novel imagines a friendship between poet Emily Dickinson and their Irish maid Ada Concannon.

I was immediately taken with this book, as both Ada and Emily are charming and captivating. The chapters alternate between their viewpoints, as the story of their friendship and the dramas around them unfold. 

O'Connor's Emily grabbed me immediately, an intellectually curious woman happy to be in her home, moved by the wilds of nature and the passions of the heart. She hovers in the kitchen for sweets and bakes as a way to shower love on those around her; she composes in secret and doles out her poems carefully.

Ada is a willing audience, a teenager fresh from Ireland, bemused by Emily. The Dickinsons are a kind family to work for, and she thrives in their home, yet heartache still hits her. It is Emily who rallies to defend her and who helps her gain some measure of happiness despite tragedy. O'Connor puts away any imaginary idea of Emily Dickinson as a pallid, passive ghost hiding in the rafters; the complicated and curious woman emerges from her pages, immediate and intriguing.

It goes without saying that a novel featuring Emily Dickinson should read poetically; in this case, O'Connor manages lyrical prose that doesn't emulate Dickinson's yet still offers the passion and boldness the poet captured in her spare lines. My copy is heavily dog-eared from the various quotes that caught me up and gave me pause, like
I look at her words, one by one. Love. Thee. Breath. Smiles. Tears. It pleases me that each word is solitary, a loner. Side by side, their staccato nature blends with others, but in the end they stand alone. Each word is a fence post -- upright, demanding, shrill -- but each one holds the fence erect, and as such, is indispensable. (p119)
From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinary-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with color. (p121)

The more I write or talk about this book, the greater my affection for it grows, and it is one of my top ten reads for 2015.

I think this would make a fabulous book club read -- zippy yet bursting with wonderful discussion topics -- as well as those who love historical fiction featuring well-known historical figures. And of course, fans of Irish fiction and Irish authors must get this one!

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Massachusetts / Irish Immigrants / Emily Dickinson / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Women Writers / Friendship)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin Books (7/14/15)
Source: The publisher
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Miss Emily to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 7/31. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.


  1. This sounds wonderful!! I've seen this book around but I haven't read too many reviews yet. I'm really excited to read it now! There it goes, one more book on my toppling wish list :)! Thanks for the wonderful review, Audra!

  2. I can think of a lot of people who would love this book.

  3. I cannot wait to dig into this book!

  4. Second great review I've read for this one! Definitely on my TBR list! :)