Miss Emily by Nuala OConnor

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

One of the things I like most about being a part of the online writing community is the opportunity to see how other writers work. It’s especially fascinating when a writer posts a photo of her workspace. That’s how I felt while I was reading this book—like I was invited into Emily Dickinson’s private writing world.

Words begin to jostle, then settle, in my mind; they play out before me as if already written. I see them in the inked curlicues of my own handwriting; I see them in pencil, blocky and spare. Words behave differently depending upon what I need them for. Writing a poem is not like writing a letter; the addressee is my soul—myself.

Miss Emily is a deeply-satisfying novel about one of America’s most renowned poets Emily Dickinson. Emily resides in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her parents and sister, but she lives in an internal world. Author Nuala O’Connor paints a convincing picture of Emily as a recluse—balancing the poet’s intense desire for a solitary and richly creative world with an almost-equally strong fascination and need to learn about the human condition.

Although Emily is introverted and lives much of her life internally, she is far from a solitary person, deeply involved with her immediate family as well as her brother and his wife—close friend and confidante Susan—who live in a neighboring house. Early in the book, Emily says, “I allow myself so few companions that I do enjoy a person who likes to talk.” Enter Ada Concannon, the Dickinson’s newly-hired maid, just arrived from Ireland.

This is the second thing that O’Connor does so well. Miss Emily is told in first-person point of view, alternating between Emily and 18-year-old Ada. Much to the consternation of (primarily) her class-conscious brother, Emily forges a friendship with Ada, the two enjoying baking and long conversations in the kitchen. And the interactions between Emily and Ada are to me where O’Connor’s book truly sings. It’s what kept me reading and made me love this novel all the more—the page-turning story of this strong and fascinating friendship and the events that drew two women closer together.

I love the character of Ada, who is (I hate to use a clichéd phrase although it’s quite apt in this case) hard working and cheerful about it. Very. Ada’s voice is as fresh as her arrival from Ireland, and engaging, just like her story.

It is an entire week since Miss Emily darkened the kitchen door. I miss her, even though half the time she gets in my way. She sits, draped over the stove, jotting words on the back of sugar wrappers, lost in her head. The only visitors to my kitchen these past days were Mr. Austin, for a few moments, and Daniel Byrne, who came to sharpen all the knives at Mr. Dickinson’s request.

Emily is drawn into helping her friend Ada, who first falls in love and then falls into hard and truly terrifying times. Emily remains a steady and true friend despite her brother’s disapproval and the fact that at times she is taken way outside her comfort level when helping Ada means challenging her fears of leaving the safety and familiarity of the family homestead.

I’d be deficit if I didn’t mention the poet’s voice, because another thing O’Connor does well is to bring alive Emily’s voice as well as her writing inspiration, as shown in this excerpt:

I sit under a pine, listening to the sounds of the earth, the turn of the beetle and the bone song of the crickets; above me a jay chimes her good fortune to the sky.

There were times like these as I was reading that I imagined myself witnessing the observations and word choices of Emily herself—suspending disbelief that I was actually reading a fictionalized accounting—not only because O’Connor wrote the scenes so convincingly but also because I could relate as a writer.

I strongly recommend Miss Emily to anyone who loves Emily Dickinson, poetry, or historical fiction. Yet, this book is so much more. It’s about complex, compelling, unlikely friendship, love, heartache, and ultimately life. In the end though what makes this book great is that it’s a beautifully written book about the human condition that happens to have Emily Dickinson as one of the main characters.


Julia lives in an old house on the coast of Maine. She’s a blogger, freelance writer, and novelist-in-progress. When she’s not writing, you’ll likely find her at water’s edge taking photographs; you can see her photos on Instagram @juliamunroemartin. Julia’s a bi-monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed and she’s also part of WU’s administrative team. Find her on Twitter @wordsxo and on her blog at www.juliamunroemartin.com.


Have you read Miss Emily? We’d love to hear what you think!

Link to buy Miss Emily at your local independent bookstore (we love them!) or at Indiebound by clicking here.