two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Secret Life of Emily DickinsonProlific novelist Jerome Charyn, a former finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, has written more than 30 novels and memoirs and serves as Professor Emeritus at the American University in Paris.

The Story: That a prim and plain spinster could live in complete isolation and yet produce some of the most extraordinary poetry in the English language is one of literature's most enduring mysteries. Charyn provides his own inventive solution by reimagining the life of the beloved "Nun of Amherst." As a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, young Emily Dickinson explores her blossoming sexual yearnings with Tom, the school's handsome handyman and "blond assassin" of her soul. But she eventually loses him to her manipulative friend and fellow student, Zilpah Marsh. Disappointed, Emily embarks on one passionate fling after another, slowly reconciling herself to the gilded cage her father has designed for her and finding expression in her writing.
Norton. 348 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780393068566

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As much as I admire Charyn's achievement in lifting the veil of a heretofore mysterious figure, I longed to see Emily Dickinson more in action, to see how the wounded deer, blond assassin and other imagery that dominates the novel found their way into the scribblings of one of America's greatest poets." Paula L. Woods

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Charyn has a perfect ear for Dickinson's ironic wit, her wicked characterizations of friends and enemies, but even allowing for a novelist's license, much is omitted here that I can't forgive. The flighty, unbalanced and childish Emily is given far more voice in these pages than the profound writer who claimed, ‘I dwell in Possibility.'" Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"Sadly, Charyn's greatest risk, Emily's voice, resembles a clotted mosaic, pieced together from bits of Charyn and shards of Dickinson. ... The voice doesn't have to be authentically Dickinson's, but it ought to sing. In rare moments, it does." Caryn James

San Francisco Chronicle 0.5 of 5 Stars
"I am pushed to say that the Emily Dickinson depicted in this novel is an embarrassment. ... Emily bosom heaving, Emily the heroine of a bodice-ripper. Who would have thought?" Jane Juska

Critical Summary

Charyn carefully adheres to the known facts of Dickinson's life, and he has a thorough knowledge of her poems and letters, the strains of which echo through his clever and elegant prose. Despite these qualities, the critics' reactions were tepid and unenthusiastic. They collectively took issue with his characterization of Emily as fickle, unstable, and promiscuous--hardly the makings of a perceptive and profound writer. The Washington Post denounced Charyn's choice to exclude Dickinson's poems from the narrative as a "damnable omission," and the San Francisco Chronicle derisively labeled the novel a "bodice-ripper." Readers who cherish Dickinson and her astonishing legacy may find the heroine of Secret Life supremely unsettling; those unacquainted with her should perhaps start with a biography like Brenda Wineapple's White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higgins ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008).