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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

The first Emily Dickinson poem that I learnt was ‘There’s Been a Death in the Opposite House’ when I was in secondary school. I didn’t know much about her then. Fast forward to my uni days: for my English class, we learnt six of her poems and most of them revolved around the theme of death. Depressing? Yes, kind of, but it’s interesting to discover why Ms Dickinson constantly wrote about it. She also liked to write poems about nature.

Anyway, did you know that she wrote nearly 1,800 poems? Incredible, huh? She never got married and she died when she was 55. She was known to wear white all the time, never left her house, never met anyone but her family and she would lower down baskets of food through her window. The only form of communication she has with the outside world was through writing letters. Besides, she was good at baking and her famous black cake is mentioned many times in this book.

Take a look at the cover. Are you smiling at the cheekiness of it? Or are you raising an eyebrow since the cover does not seem compatible with my description of Emily? Well, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is about the secret, wilder side of the poet that will shock you horrendously. Don’t get too excited as it is part fiction with several fictional characters thrown in for an added thrill.

The story begins with Emily as a student at the seminary Mount Holyoke which had strict rules for its students. There, she falls in love with a blond, blue-eyed handyman named Tom. Though she thinks of him all the time and wants to woo him, she never had the chance to be with him. Emily was to find out later that her schoolmate Zilpah Marsh had already made Tom her man.

Her relationships with various characters are also explored throughout the novel. The characters include her protective father Edward Dickinson, her faithful dog Carlo, the fictitious Zilpah Marsh, her sister-in-law Sue, and also her array of suitors. In the book, she fell in love over and over again but I think her heart always belonged to Tom the handyman.

The author, Jerome Charyn, has used her letters and poetry as inspiration for the book. Therefore, you can spot some lines from her poems in the story along with her eccentric way of capitalising the first letter of certain words. Lots of metaphors are also used and I had to read some paragraphs again and again to comprehend the meaning. Honestly I gave up at some and just continued reading.

Split into seven parts and 48 chapters, the 348-page novel is written from Emily’s point of view. If you want to get to know Emily Dickinson intimately, read this book and you’ll observe how imaginative and flirtatious she can be! You’ll also find yourself delved into her innermost thoughts and following her on daring adventures (daring for women of her time). Remember that it is her secret life and secrets can be scandalous, can’t they?

***Thanks to Mark Goldman for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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  1. I do love that cover. I think Emily Dickinson is one of those figures that you just want to believe had a really passionate love affair because of the passion in her writing. Good review!

  2. Nice review. I hope I have the convenience of time reading nice books such as this…

  3. @StephanieD: And she’s so mysterious too! Perhaps all that passion was stored up in her love letters?

    @dodong flores: Hope you do, I’d definitely recommend this book if you like or have studied any of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

  4. This one looks so interesting!! Thanks for stopping by my blog today!!

  5. @Carrie at In the Hammock Blog: Hi there! Thanks for visiting this blog of mine too! :) Yeah, you should definitely check out this novel, it’s really good.

  6. Thank you for this review! I certainly think some poems of Dickinson’s, if they don’t show a flirtatious side, do show quite a bit of sexuality (i.e. the “Brazil” poems). Several poems seem to be all about trying to get a guy – “if I can stop one heart from breaking,” on my reading, is probably about her own heart.

  7. @ashok: Wow, that’s fascinating! I’ll certainly need to read those poems you mentioned. The ones that I were exposed to were mostly about death or about nature, and I thought how depressed a person she must have been!

    She did live an intriguing life and kept in touch with many people, by letter-writing that is.


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