Thursday, December 10, 2009

Afternoons With Emily by Rose MacMurray

First, a brief appeared today in Shelf Awareness about Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle:

Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle, Wash., has found space in the Capitol
Hill neighborhood and will move from Pioneer Square next spring,
according to a letter from owner Peter Aaron on the store's website

The new space has slightly more selling space than the store's current
location, will have a cafe and offers ample parking below street level
and in a nearby parking lot. The building, which dates from 1918, "has
the fir floor--complete with creaks--we're used to treading, and
gorgeous high wood ceiling--including massive wood beams--and
skylights," Aaron wrote. "While no space could exactly duplicate the
charm of the original store, I can promise that the new building will
offer a warm, comfortable and cozy environment that will be true to the
beautiful place Walter Carr founded on Main Street."

He added: "When I first became involved in the ownership of Elliott Bay
eleven years ago, it was because I believed fervently that this gem,
which had been 'my' bookstore since I first moved here twenty-seven
years ago, was worth saving--that it was a precious asset that must and,
in fact, could flourish in this city--if anywhere on earth. Since that
time I have done my best to be a faithful steward in preserving both the
spirit and the body of this unique place which has been built and
nourished cooperatively by the generations of booksellers who have
worked here over the years and the book-lovers who have supported
us--here in Seattle, across the country and indeed around the world. I'm
inexpressibly grateful for that ongoing support--and most especially for
the outpouring of concern and commitment we've received in recent
months. We're committed to doing everything in our power to continue to
earn your patronage and support."

I must note that now I will have no reason to visit Pioneer Square, as that store was a landmark and the only reason the 25 mile trip was worthwhile, really. Now that area is going to become just another corridor of cheap and scuzzy bars surrounded by the bums and panhandlers that sleep at the mission and then try to get enough together to buy booze and get drunk or buy drugs and get high.
Capitol Hill already HAS bookstores, and it is notorious for being bereft of parking, day or night. Cap Hill also has a well deserved reputation as a gay and lesbian enclave, (and that is fine, really, I have no problem with the GLBT community) and a haven for 'wierd' people and strange restaurants. It's not considered a family-oriented place, so, as a woman with a family, I don't bother to go there often, though when Jim and I first moved here, we did visit Capitol Hill for their Japanese noodle houses. Yet I think that Elliott Bay has shot themselves in the foot, and I don't believe their business will thrive when transplanted to the funky soil of Cap Hill. But I wish them good luck with the move, regardless.

I bought Afternoons With Emily on a whim, mainly because of the lovely Victorian art cover and the back flap blurb that mentioned that the author, Rose MacMurray died unexpectedly after finishing the manuscript of this book, and her family had it published for her posthumously. I am a sucker for a publishing sob story, so I had to buy this book.
Fortunately, the book lives up to its cover and its author with a fine, if somewhat melodramatic story, fascinating characters and rich prose sprinkled with the luscious poetry of Emily Dickenson.
It should be noted that Ms MacMurray was a well-educated woman who studied Emily Dickenson's life and poetry for many years before writing this work of fiction.
That kind of dedicated research informs every page of the novel, making all the characters seem real and well-fleshed-out.
The story's main protagonist is Miranda Chase, a young girl whose mother dies of TB and leaves her with an absent-minded professor father who hasn't a clue how to parent a little girl, and is selfish and arrogant enough not to care. Following the death of her mother, Miranda and her father move to a sugar plantation on Barbados for a year, where Miranda learns a great deal from the natives and finds out that her mothers insistence that she, too, had "consumptive lungs" is a lie, and that she is actually hale and healthy. Miranda's father wins a position in classics at Amherst College, and the two move to Amherst, Massachusetts, where they will live with Miranda's Aunt Helen and next door to the town's founding family, the Dickensons.
Miranda learns that Emily Dickenson, the genius poet of the family, is a recluse and rarely allows anyone to see her, as all her relationships are maintained via letter writing.
However, once Emily hears that a teenaged Miranda has told the local reverend that she prefers Zeus to Jesus, she insists that Miranda come to call upon her, and therein starts a riveting relationship. Miranda initially comes to visit Emily every Monday, but as she grows and her lifes work takes shape, Emily's attitude toward Miranda becomes less that of a friend and mentor/teacher, and more of a Svengali who is cruelly possessive and wishes to shape Miranda's life to be exactly like her own.
For example, when Miranda's cousin Kate dies right after Miranda has lost her fiance to the Civil War, Emily writes her comforting poetry and is sympathetic to a point. Yet once Miranda brings home her cousins daughter to raise as her own, and falls in love with her fiance's trust lawyer, Emily seems consumed by jealousy and rage, and works to undermine Miranda's life and love.
Though we see many bits of Emily Dickensons poetry, readers are allowed to see that Dickenson's immaturity and bizarre mental state often lead her to produce works that were not great, and her pride kept her from allowing any famed publishers of the time to edit her work. Here we see that high intelligence and insanity really are flip sides of the same coin.
I enjoyed this book, though it became something of a treatise on the rights of women in the 19th century, and the serious lack of quality early childhood education, which Miranda tries to rectify by creating a montessori-style kindergarten in New York and Amherst. I would have appreciated more of Emily's daily life and less of Miranda's, because Emily was a real person and Miranda was not.I would have liked to have known, for example, which of Emily's mentors finally persuaded her to publish, and if they were able to edit her work, and what happened to all the poems Emily sent to her relatives and friends--were they published posthumously? Also, the fate of Emily's sister Lavinia and her mother are never brought to light.
Still, the love story of Miranda and Roger was nicely done, and the HEA ending wasn't amiss.
I recommend this book to all who are fans of Emily Dickenson's poetry, those who are interested in how people lived during the Civil War era and those who appreciate a good historically-accurate romance.

4 comments:

DeAnn G. Rossetti said...

DeAnn, The internet is wonderful, and so is Google Alert, which pointed me to your review this morning. "Afternoons with Emily" is my mother's one and only novel, and as we approach the date she died so unexpectedly (December 17), it is fantastic to know that her work is still read and enjoyed. I gave a reading of the work last fall in the Napa Valley, so Emily and Rose go on. You wrote a good and fair review, and I'll look forward to keeping in touch with your blog. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Adelaide MacMurray-Cooper

DeAnn G. Rossetti said...

Hi Ms MacMurray-Cooper,
For some odd reason, my blog would only publish your comment on the previous review, which is about a book by Jennie Shortridge and not about your mother's wonderful novel.
So I cut and pasted it into a comment box for the "Afternoons with Emily" review, and am going to post this comment follow it.
Sorry for the wierd misposting!
Anyway, thank you so much for stopping by my blog and reading my review of Afternoons with Emily.
Indeed, I am glad that your mother's work lives on, it is obvious that she expended a lot of time researching and writing the book. It's a well-written and fascinating novel that I couldn't put down. Thank you for the kind words, and Happy Holidays to you and your family as well!
By the way, I will light a candle for your mother on the 17th in her memory. She must have been a wonderful, talented parent to have.
Take care,
DeAnn

DarkUFO said...

Test

DeAnn G. Rossetti said...

Hmm, thanks DarkUFO, for posting the test...for some reason, now it is posting to the right place, while before I wrote to you it would only post comments to the previous article/review, Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe.
I don't understand why this is happening at all.
It has me scratching my head.
But whatever you did to get it to post comments in the right place, THANK YOU!