The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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March 23, 2015

Amherst {or, The Lovers of ...}


I've never read William Nicholson's fiction before, but I've seen it mentioned on the blogs we read, and when I read about Amherst, I was immediately interested.  I was planning to return it to the library this weekend, unrenewable and thus unread, but I found myself not wanting to let it go. In the end, I'm glad I read it, even though I think I like what the author wanted to do more than what he did.

The premise is wonderful.  Alice Dickinson, no relation, a 24-year-old copywriter living in London, wants to write a screenplay about Emily Dickinson, and plans a two-week trip to Amherst, the college town in western Massachusetts where the poet lived, to do some research. When she asks her Facebook friends for contacts in Amherst, her ex-boyfriend, Jake, hands her the phone number of Nick Crocker, a visiting professor now in his fifties who was his mother's first love.  Meanwhile, Alice has been reading,in diaries and letters, about the real-life love affair {fascinating to read about here} between Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the beautiful young wife of a younger professor just arrived at the college, and trying to find the story she wants to tell in her film.

There's no question that Amherst is the work of an accomplished writer, but it's not the kind of writing I'm drawn to.  There are some writers who seem to write with very straightforward, not-overly-descriptive prose, and sometimes (as here) I find myself wanting the details, the descriptions, the color, the richer sense of who the characters are and where and how they live.  And even though it didn't have to be a sappy romance, there's something fraught, self-absorbed, something just unsympathetic about all four of the lovers (and something more than a little creepy about Mabel's husband David, who wants to share their love).

There is a devastating insight {one that reading about her in a biography seems to bear out, less kindly} that the great passion between Mabel and Austin could have been less about loving the other than about something else:

This is the passage that is on Alice's mind as she heads back up the interstate to Amherst. It's no answer to her puzzle over how to end her story, but it is something important nevertheless. ...
      What if we seek love not because we long to be discovered by another but because we need to affirm ourselves? This makes it a very different enterprise, and one that is not negated by death of the lover.'
      Alice is excited. New ideas swarm in her brain.
      I, just myself, and because it is I.
      Mabel was seeking to know herself and believe herself to be uniquely uniquely valuable. She was driven to assert her own worth against the greater meaninglessness of life. Did she delude herself? In her extreme need, did she fabricate a noble passion, and then call upon it to give her life a glory it otherwise lacked?

I'm not sure this will lead me to look for another of his novels (am I missing something if I don't?) but I do want to make a long-overdue day trip to Amherst {I've never been there}.

{Update:  But then, this morning on the bus, with this book in my bag so I could return it to the library at lunchtime, I read the Afterword, and found this:

The fictional characters in  Amherst have appeared in my earlier novels.  Jack and Alice can be met at the age of eleven in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. Their tentative romance begins eight years later in All the Hopeful Lovers. The story of Alice's grandmother develops in Motherland and Reckless. Nick Crocker's past love affair with Jack's mother, Laura, and his attempt to rekindle that love, is told in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. Attentive readers will find many more seeds which I've planted, waiting for their turn to flower.

Recurring characters are kind of irresistible, aren't they, so maybe I would be missing something...

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
A sidenote:  I was curious about whether William Nicholson was one of the Nicholsons {as in Harold}, but then I remembered that the Nicholsons are actually the Nicolsons.  Which means that Virginia Nicholson, whose books I've either read or want to, isn't one of the Nicolsons either, but is married to William. But I didn't realize that she's the daughter of Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf's nephew and biographer, and Anne Olivier Bell. This isn't name-dropping, I promise, but I met the Bells when they visited my college and I volunteered or was asked to walk them over to the bookstore. Every once in a while, I think of this and realize that I've met someone who knew Virginia Woolf, and I'm a little awestruck.

Another sidenote: I've been finding it interesting, once in a while, to compare our titles to the UK editions', and our book covers to theirs. In this case, I think I'd choose ours ... even though since this book isn't really about Emily Dickinson, it's not quite spot on.


Lisa said...

I went to grad school at UMass Amherst, but sadly, at the time, I had no appreciation for Emily Dickinson - though I did go to her house more than once. There's a mystery set in Amherst & around her house that I read just for the setting, and for the life of me I can't remember the author or the title.

JoAnn said...

I could be tempted to make a day trip to Amherst... should the snow ever melt. My SIL lived in Northampton years ago. It's such a beautiful area.

Cosy Books said...

I don't think the book is for me but I really enjoyed your tidbits and trivia about the Bells and I had no idea he was Virginia's father! Millions Like Us is such a fun and interesting read.

Sunday Taylor said...

Your paragraph about the Nicolsons and the Nicholsons made me giggle, as I have had the same confusion. But I found out about Virginia being Quentin's daughter many years ago when I heard her lecture about Bloomsbury here in Los Angeles. And how exciting that the Bells visited your college. I just finished "Vanessa and Her Sister" which is all about the Bells and the Woolves. Though in this case it's the earlier Bells, Clive and Vanessa. Fascinating historical fiction about the early years of Vanessa and Virginia.

Thank you for visiting!

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