Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A NovelTitle: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Author: Jerome Charyn
Pages: 352
Published: 2010 W.W. Norton & Co.
Read For: Tribute Book Tours (thank you for the review copy!)
My Rating: 2.5 stars

I've been interested in Emily Dickinson in a moderate way for years.  The combination of the amount of poetry she wrote in the time she lived, with the reclusive manner in which she lived her life has always spoken to me of someone with an observant, reflective nature.  I have read some of her poetry in the past, despite the fact that I've never been a huge poetry enthusiast.  From everything I've read, I've understood her to have been plagued by some depression and melancholy spells due to the deaths of those around her, and largely known for her interest in gardening for much of her life.  This, however, seems to be a common misconception, according to Jerome Charyn. (If you are interested, compare the poem posted below with the author's comments on the YouTube video below.)
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching, 
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

It is apparent, from the title and cover of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, that this is not a serious book--at least in the reflective, melancholy sense of the word.  Still, I thought the entertainment might be tempered by some insight into her life, that it would be a biographical novel, similar to those of Irving Stone but with a touch of humor.  What I found was more of an imagination, a re-creation if you will, of how her life could have been.  This re-created figure is light and lithe, not only in mind but in action.  She dares to buck authority and dreams only of adventure and romance. This poem displays her sense of humor, though it is rather an introverted variety:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Perhaps the thing I missed most in this book was the lack of inclusion of her poetry.  I think that this reflects that the intent of the author was an imagination rather than traditional representation, although even at this I think some her poetry would have given the book more credence.  Despite my recriminations, I can appreciate looking at an historical character in a non-traditional manner; this one was just a bit too lighthearted for my taste.  I never felt like I knew the Emily presented in this book, which is the one thing that should happen when reading The Secret Life of said person.  If, however, you are in the mood for a playful look at a woman ahead of her times, consider picking this up.

There is a review of this book by Joyce Carol Oates here, if you are interested.  Thanks again to Tribute Book Tours for providing me with a beautiful copy of this book!


  1. Melody, thank you for such thoughtful review.

    I appreciate your including the link to Joyce Carol Oates' review.

    To read more reviews, please visit the book's blog tour site at:

  2. Thank you for including me on the tour, and for leaving the address to the blog. There are a lot of great blogs on the tour!


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