Amherst combines the tale of two love stories, one actual and one fictional. The historical actual affair was between Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and the much younger Mabel Loomis Todd. The modern fictional affair is between Alice Dickinson, working on a screenplay about the affair, and Nick Crocker, an older academic who gives her a place to stay in Amherst while she does her research. All of these people are married to others except Alice.
Emily Dickinson herself is a minor character in the 19th century story. Her brother and Todd used her house for their trysts—a known fact—and there is some debate about how much exposure Emily herself had to sex. Nicholson theorizes a woman listening at doors and a sort of free love attitude by everyone except Sue, Austin’s wife. I found it all a little sordid and probably unlikely.
All of this might be interesting to a reader of literature if Nicholson had spent any time with these characters before thrusting them into their love affairs. We don’t know any of them, so we don’t care about them (alas, too often my complaint lately).
Worse, to me, are the liberties or omissions at the end of the novel. Nicholson gives Todd full credit for her efforts to publish Dickinson’s poetry after her death, even having her spend hours convincing Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the value of Emily’s work. He doesn’t mention that Higginson was already very familiar with Dickinson’s poetry, having been in correspondence with her for 20 years before her death, as related in the excellent biography White Heat. (Although on the surface Nicholson seems unfamiliar with or ignores some of the content of the biography, he interestingly uses the phrase “white heat” to refer to the affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson.) Higginson was already convinced of the worth of Dickinson’s poetry—he just had doubts about how publishable it was. In fact, he almost certainly met Dickinson, which Todd never did.
The other historical fact Nicholson completely glosses over is the one the world of literature finds most shocking—that Todd and Higginson edited Dickinson’s poetry, changing capitalization and spelling but even rewriting some of the passages.
The lovers are not really likable, in fact or fiction. Austin Dickinson actually consummated his affair with Todd while his wife was grieving the recent death of their young son. Mabel comes off everywhere as self-centered, and she fought with the Dickinson’s over Emily’s legacy as much as she ensured it.
The two modern lovers are just not interesting, really more of a footnote to the historical section, and I found Nick to be extremely manipulative. The novel also employs that overused trope of having Alice find out immediately in a way that is too crass to be believable that Nick has a reputation as a seducer. Note to minor characters: these warnings never work.
It’s hard to tell whether Nicholson meant these stories to be romantic, although he states in an interview that he is interested in exploring love. I did not find the stories romantic, either one of them. I also did not feel they particularly explored the theme of love. I was not at all drawn in by this novel, neither by the historical nor by the modern story.