Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, by Jerome Charyn

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
by Jerome Charyn
W.W. Norton and Company
347 pages

"And both of us luxuriate in the village yard with words that have a lover's lightning - lightning that can shake the world, invert what is for what ought to be."  (pg. 161)

Words that have a lover's lightning.  How can any reader not love that phrase?  And words like that, my friends, are part and parcel of the treat you're in for with Jerome Charyn's superb novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.

This is a novel reminiscent a bit of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which is one of my all-time favorite books. I love the concept and the innovation of the author as author, and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson provides the reader with that same delight.

I honestly do not know if I can do this book justice with this review, but I will try.  Quite simply, this is a spectacular novel.  As I said in my Sunday Salon post, "Jerome Charyn makes Emily Dickinson so intriguing, capturing her voice and her feisty spirit in such a way that you can't help but want to keep reading and learning more."

Emily Dickinson was a bit of a mystery to me before I read this novel.  I confess I didn't know much about her life and I hadn't read much more than her best-known poems.  (I'm thinking I might not be the only one. As the book jacket states: "Channeling the devilish rhythms and ghosts of a seemingly buried literary past, Charyn has removed the mysterious veils that have long enshrouded Dickinson, revealing her passions, inner turmoil, and powerful sexuality.")  

You forget that you are reading when you are reading this book because Charyn's words first transport you back to 1848 when a teenage Emily Dickinson is a student at Mount Holyoke.  She's a bit rebellious ... and in love with the school's handyman, Tom. She's not there very long before she becomes ill with the croup (lovesick, too) and returns home to Amherst, where her father Edward is the treasurer of Amherst College and a prominent leader in the town. 

Tom is only the first of Emily's several love interests who make appearances in the book.  There's the articulate minister Rev. Wadsworth, whose church Emily attends while visiting a cousin in Philadelphia (the Arch Street Church!). There's Samuel Bowles, editor of The Republican. There's a later-in-life fling with her father's close friend. There's a cardsharp that she nicknames Domingo after a brand of rum they shared in a secret hideaway "rum resort."  (Emily is fond of nicknames. Everyone's got one.) Who needs Twilight or The Bachelor or any of these other stupid "reality" shows when you've got all this?

"He's wearing a summer coat with frayed sleeves and a cravat with crooked strings.  His shoes want a little polishing, but I'd take him to the shoemaker and buy him another pair with Pa-pa's money if he'd promise to marry me, and even if he don't.  He intoxicates me in a way that Mr. Bowles never could.  I wouldn't mind being part of his seraglio, the biggest part. But I still can't get much of a proposal out of him. Instead he drills Shakespeare into my eardrum, pretends we're Antony and Cleopatra escaping from the battle of Actium. But he must be a confidence man, or how else would he know how to seize the words of Cleopatra for himself and let me have the role of that love-sick general, Marc Antony, who gives up half the world and all his wealth for that conniving queen?

'Forgive my fearful sails!' my Domingo says. 'I little thought you would have follow'd.' 

'Egypt, thou knew'st too well,' I whisper.  'My heart was to thy rudder tied by strings ....' 

And both of us luxuriate in the village yard with words that have a lover's lightning - lightning that can shake the world, invert what is for what ought to be."  (pg. 161)

And there was one more love of Emily's life - perhaps the greatest.  Her beloved dog, a Newfoundland named Carlo.  She adores this dog, takes him almost everywhere she goes.  Anyone who has ever loved a pet can see themselves reflected in Emily's feelings about her Pup. 

"Lord, I've been truer to Carlo than to any man, including that other rascal, Tom the Pickpocket. The Pup has seen me cry, throw jealous fits, plot against Pa-pa, thunder around like Zeus himself, and he's like a peace officer who can calm his mistress and make her laugh. I cannot recall being lonely in his presence. I talk to Carlo, and he don't have to talk back. His big brown eyes tell the most prescient tale.  He's met most of my suitors, long before I turned into an irascible old maid, and he hasn't been jealous of one.  He's never asked me to play with him. Carlo doesn't consider himself a dog, I'd imagine, and wouldn't tolerate anyone else calling him Pup. He's been my Confederate these sixteen years, and a much better roommate than any I ever had.

(Folks dealing with the recent New England snows will appreciate the passage that comes next.)

And one night, a few months after I returned from Cambridgeport, there was a howling storm and snowflakes big as diamonds beat against the windows.  Pa-pa's fields had a brutal white glare. The totality of it, the immense blanket of snow that moved in waves, frightened me and I was tempted to lie down with Carlo in his bassinet. But I fell into a deep slumber and found myself riding on Carlo's regal back. I didn't need to have any reins or stirrups. I held onto his collar, but I could hardly straddle the enormous black bundle of him. Still, my Pup wouldn't let me fall. I wore my nightgown into the wind. I wasn't cold. It was like sitting on top of a furry furnace. 

We rode above Main Street, he and I, and the houses had a sudden regularity, even in the snowstorm, as if Amherst had become a perfect winter map, with half-buried roads and a line of chimneys as mysterious as musical notes on a page.

I clung to Carlo. Riding him was like going away to live with a man and sitting on my own trousseau - the Pup, instead of spoons and pillowcases. Whoever I was marrying couldn't break into my dream."  (pg. 244-245).

The reader is taken on a wonderful literary ride through Emily's life (Charyn writes in the beginning which elements of the book are fictional, which is very helpful because that is one of my personal stumbling blocks with historical fiction). We meet her beaus, mentioned above, and her Holyoke friends, her headmistresses, and her family.  We see her as a budding poet and as a recluse, forever in mourning of the deaths that affected her and would become a force in her poetry. 

Hopefully these passages - and I could quote the whole book if I could - give you a taste of the exquisite language and vocabulary infused in every sentence of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.  It's just such a decadent book, one to savor.  Charyn brings Emily to life in a vivid and fascinating way (making the poet so real you can Friend her on Facebook) * and the reader is richly rewarded.

We're less than a month into the new year, but I already know this: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson will be among the very best books I will read in 2011.

And it should be one of yours too.

* The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson has a very fun Facebook page celebrating the novel and all things Emily. 

Author Jerome Charyn's website is here.

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copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Anonymous said...

That is high praise! I've always been fascinated by Emily Dickingson, but I have never read much by her or about her. I like fictionalised accounts, to get me into the mood to read more deeply on the subject. It sounds like this is just the thing for me.

Melissa said...

Before reading this book, I hadn't read much by or about her either. And this definitely made me want to read more of her work and about her life. I have The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson out from the library, as well as Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds.

This one is a great book ... I hope you give it a try!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

This sounds like a lovely book - reminds me of The Secret Life of Louisa May Alcott a bit. I don't know much about Emily Dickinson, either, so that could be fun.

Elizabeth said...

What a great review. And I have to say if The Hours is one of your favorite books, then I'm downloading this book right this very instant!