Rhyming Romances

Love affairs past and present align in a locally set novel.


Amherst by William Nicholson

Published by Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $26

Ghostly even when she was alive, poet Emily Dickinson hovers over everyone in this book. Her married brother Austin has an affair with the younger Mabel, who’s also married, leading Austin to totally disregard his actual family. Mabel’s husband cheerfully enables the affair, and Emily tacitly encourages them, listening at the door, even observing the bodice unlacing. Nicholson conveys the pair’s romance both in their authentic 1880s language, found in letters and diaries, and in his own words, which sometimes feel suspiciously modern but often resemble the 19th-century lovers’ rapturous declarations.

Fast-forward to the present, and we meet Alice, who is writing a screenplay about the drama that played out in Amherst—which included Mabel collecting Emily’s poems and getting them published posthumously, clinching her fame. During her research, Alice gets involved with the married Nick, an older, sexy lapsed professor. While she puzzles out the intricacies of the long-ago affair, Nick emerges as Emily’s double of sorts, a maddeningly elusive man half in love with death. Nicholson has all his characters wondering what love is: an ideology, an actual relationship, passion? It can get rather cerebral, but Nicholson, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter himself, also gives us a story that evokes the juicy angst of love and loss.

From page 109: Emily was beyond fear or favor. She had never set eyes on Mabel. She was the Myth. She lived apart, accepting the pain and the freedom of loneliness. For all these reasons, Mabel bowed her head before her, almost in worship. And now, she learned, her deity graciously received her prayers, and smiled upon her.


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