Amherst: A Novel - William Nicholson

I admit it, I like to read wacky books about what I like to call “adjacent characters” — people nearly famous, related to famous people, or possibly just nearby when something famous happens. So I loved Vanessa and her Sister (her sister being Virginia Stephen, later Woolf), and I thought this might be similar. It had the added appeal of an unknown-to-me scandal, much like the later material in Loving Frank, so I was hooked even before I started.


This is the part where you need to read the summary from the publisher, and then, try to understand that I read that when I selected it on NetGalley, but promptly forgot it until I began the book months later. So I was clueless, and shocked, even though Nicholson eases us gently into the parallel Dickinson affairs. To be fair, it was really just unbelievably modern — if by modern I can mean marriages without real rules, and not necessarily limited to one husband per wife — and that was the couple from the 1880s! The affair between Austin Dickinson (Emily’s brother) and Mabel Loomis Todd is shocking, almost unbelievable (but it really happened), and often emotionally stunning. By comparison, the affair between Alice Dickinson (no relation) and Nick Crocker is almost chaste; pure chick lit romance right down to the cheesy character names.


So — I did enjoy the book, but I honestly thought that Alice and Nick’s storyline was completely unnecessary. It seemed so trite, where the Dickinson affair was wholly original and well-imagined by the author, and certainly could have held my attention on its own. Seriously, some of the details in this book prove, once again, that truth is stranger than fiction.