I read this book because I’m a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. This is the second book by Nuala O’Connor that I read. I also read Becoming Belle by her, which was okay. I was still excited to read this book, though. While I found the writing lyrical in some instances, especially the instances when Emily talks about her love of words and solitude, I could not shake the feeling that this book felt like an early draft of a novel, instead of a completed story.
It was better than Becoming Belle, in the sense that it had more atmospheric writing and the setting was more fleshed out, but the characters felt lacking. This is supposed to be a story of friendship between Emily Dickinson and Ada, their young Irish housekeeper, but the relationship between them feels too underdeveloped, like there isn’t enough there to form the strong bond between them that the reader is supposed to see.
Likewise, the relationship between Emily and Susan, her brother’s sister whom she is supposed to be in love with, is also underdeveloped. Susan is supposed to be Emily’s love of her life but we don’t see enough of this character or interactions between Emily and Susan to get to know Susan as a character or understand why Emily loves her so much.
Also, in terms of plot, there are some scenes that would serve to move the plot forward but they all happen “off-screen”, which kills the tension. The book also starts off really sweet, and then something awful happens which veers the plot in an entirely different direction. I was led to believe the story would be a sweet, domestic, pastoral narration and then it plunges me into something darker. I found this jarring in terms of tone.
I give this 3 stars out of 5, a better rating than I would give Becoming Belle (2 out of 5 stars) just because I really liked the lyrical writing and the descriptions of Emily’s poetic inner life. In that sense, I could even say that the poetry within this book is better than its prose. The author has a third novel out, Nora, about James Joyce’s wife which I am debating reading. It has the best rating on GoodReads out of her three novels, but since these two didn’t really do it for me, I am not sure I will pick up her third and most recent work.