I have written previously about my hesitation in reading books about places I consider home, fiction or non. Yet they do have a strong appeal — which is why my husband and I have for the last three years led a group at The Studios of Key West called Reading Key West. So when I stopped by the Key West Library a couple months ago and saw a novel in the new books section called Amherst, I grabbed it.* Then I circled around it for a week or two.
I had another reason to worry about this book. Besides the familiar territory thing, I’m wary of novels about real people, especially writers. These seem to be having a moment, with the works of Paula McLain, Erika Roebuck and the like. I’m not dead set against them. But I worry, because the fictional representation of any real person’s life feels even more fraught when that person is a writer.
Eventually, though, I picked it up. And wound up loving it – especially the historical sections, which recount the infamous love affair of Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, with a young neighbor, Mabel Loomis Todd.
Their story is interspersed with a contemporary story, a young British screenwriter wants to write a movie about the love affair and is visiting Amherst for research. Oddly, the contemporary part felt less authentic to me though I appreciated it as the story of a young woman coming to grips with love and what it may mean in her life. But the entire book was propulsive, even if I kind of knew the broad outlines of the Todd-Dickinson affair and the role Mabel Todd played in getting Emily Dickinson’s poems out to the world. I’d like to read more of William Nicholson’s books – and since he’s a screenwriter, too, I’d really like to see him take a shot at the movie about that passionate, a little bit tragic, ultimately Victorian couple. With Emily lurking around upstairs in her white dress, of course.
Reading and enjoying Amherst gave me the courage to finally pick up another Emily Dickinson book I’ve had around for awhile – Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl. I don’t want to give this book a bad review, because I think it was well-done. But I am definitely not the right reader. It’s YA, for one thing, and though I do read some YA it’s almost all in the fantasy/dystopia area. More problematic is it’s in the genre corner I have a real problem with, which I usually refer to as Jane Austen Solves Crimes. Only in this case it’s Emily Dickinson. And she’s a teenager! Some of it just didn’t make sense to me, for how people in 19th century small town New England would behave. I wonder what I would have thought of this book as a younger reader. I might have liked it a lot – and it might have led me to get really into Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
* Here I would like to offer some props — and thanks — to the good people at the Key West Library who are responsible for ordering new books. Twice recently I have come across books that I hadn’t previously heard of in the New Books section and in both cases, Amherst and The Fair Fight, they were books I really enjoyed. I appreciate a serendipitous discovery via browsing more than I can say in this age where everything is linked and recommended. So thank you, Key West Library staff! As a reader I appreciate your discernment and your commitment to bringing us books. So do many other readers, even if they don’t realize what you’re doing for them.