Award-winning Irish short-story author Nuala O’Connor not only pays tribute to the beloved writers who have come before her, but she brings one back to life on the page. Exploring the entwined lives of Emily Dickinson and her fictionalized maid Ada Concannon, Miss Emily portrays the blossoming of an upstairs-downstairs friendship in 1850s Amherst, Massachusetts.
256 pages, $20 (trade paperback)
Release date July 14, 2015
An Irish immigrant, 17-year-old Ada enters the kitchen of the Dickinson house and is immediately intrigued by the reclusive Emily. Over time, the two women spend countless hours baking together. Baking was a beloved pastime of the enigmatic poet; she famously lowered baskets of gingerbread to neighbourhood children from a window. While Ada fills her life with service, Emily finds solace in poetry. When shocking violence rocks Ada’s life of servitude, Emily’s agoraphobia and the class realities of the period test the women’s already unlikely friendship. Miss Emily questions what freedoms can be enjoyed by either woman, making for thought-provoking reading. While Ada is invisibly chained to the kitchen, Emily smuggles in Dostoyevsky books amid her father’s beliefs that women should not be overly educated so as not to “jostle the mind.”
Told through first-person narrative that switches between Emily and Ada, Miss Emily succeeds in portraying the class (and for Irish-American immigrants of the period, racial) differences between the two women and the worlds they come from. The book reads as Downton Abbey in miniature, relocated to New England.
O’Connor clearly has affection for her subject, who herself reveres Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot and keeps a well-read Emily Brontë book on her bedside table. O’Connor’s biggest tribute towards Miss Emily‘s titular heroine, however, is her Dickinson-esque economy of words and a deeply shared love of language.
Despite its brisk 256 pages, Miss Emily makes a memorable first impression for O’Connor and charmingly adds to Dickinson’s enigma. In Emily’s own (imagined-by-O’Connor) words, “There is no better secret keeper than a Dickinson; we are able to close around our skeletons as snug as a shroud.”
Discussion Points for Your Book Club
1. Ada Concannon moves to America at the young age of 17 and straight into service “downstairs” in Emily Dickinson’s stately home. Consider and compare the differences between the famine-stricken Ireland of her birth with a new life in the United States.
2. How does the alternate first-person narration between Ada and Emily affect the way in which the story is told? How much does their individual perspective shade in and change the story’s events?
3. Descriptive passages in Miss Emily often refer to the sense of smell. How effective are these references in creating the story’s atmosphere?
4. While Emily Dickinson was a real, oft-researched and written about historical figure, Ada is the fictional creation of Nuala O’Connor. When blending fiction and reality, does the author have any special obligation to the historical figure when placing them in new relationships with imagined characters?
5. Letters between Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert suggest more than mere in-law friendliness between the two women. How does Miss Emily explore the possibility of a closer connection?