Two love affairs, more than a century apart, are influenced by Emily Dickinson in novelist and screenwriter Nicholson’s latest novel.
Alice Dickinson (no relation to the poet) is a young British woman who has appeared in some of Nicholson's earlier novels; she's now an advertising copywriter hoping to write a screenplay based on the scandalous romantic entanglement of Austin Dickinson, Emily’s staid brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, an alluring, much younger woman. It's not clear how much of a role Emily played in aiding and abetting the romance, but Mabel eventually became the champion of the mysterious poet’s work after her death. Alice travels to Dickinson's hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, to do research; while she's there, she meets Nick Crocker, a local literature professor, to whom she's been referred by her ex-boyfriend Jack. Matters are muddled by the fact that Nick was an early boyfriend of Jack’s mother and has a reputation as a Casanova. Alice’s attempts to understand Austin’s and Mabel’s motivations become intertwined with her own efforts at deciphering her complicated feelings for Nick; she must unravel not only the mores of the Amherst community a century earlier, but also the etiquette of a contemporary love affair between partners with differing views of life. Relying heavily on extensive research into the Dickinson-Todd affair, Nicholson peppers the novel with summary explanations of events in order to propel the plot forward (a convention similar to calendar pages flying off the screen in the movies). Extensive dialogue between Alice and Nick about life, love, death and desire will provide readers, particularly those in reading groups, with grist for discussion.
Nicholson’s (Motherland, 2013, etc.) parallel love stories hold classic appeal, while the historic aspects of the tale provide interest for those seeking “the real story” of one of America’s most revered poets.