Saturday 23 May 2015

The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson

William Nicholson has carved a niche for himself writing intelligent novels about relationships, following a collection of interconnected characters over several generations. He does historical settings really well, and this novel features two time periods, the first is present day from the point of view of Alice Dickinson. She's a London copy writer researching the characters from the second time period for a screen play - the 'lovers of Amherst' of the title: Austin Dickinson (no relation) and Mabel Todd.
    Mabel is the young wife of an academic newly arrived at Amherst College and Austin the much older and unhappily married brother of American poet Emily Dickinson. It is 1885 when the two fall in love, meeting secretly in Emily Dickinson's house. Emily approves of their passion and while she is too much of a recluse to meet Mabel in person, she listens to their trysts through the dining room door. Who could resist writing a screenplay about that?
    Alice has her own issues with love. While she has broken the heart of Jack Broad, they remain friends and Jack offers her a contact in Amherst: the handsome older lecturer, Nick Crocker, who was once romantically involved with Jack's mother. Of course the inevitable happens, and Nick and Alice mirror the story of Austin and Mabel, told in alternating chapters.
    While this would make enough fodder for a reasonable love story, the novel goes a lot deeper than that, with discourses on the nature of love and happiness. Alice begins to learn the workings of her own feelings, chorused with snippets of Emily Dickinson's pithy and insightful poetry.
    It becomes a novel full of quotations and while I enjoyed lingering over the verse attempting to make connections to what is happening and for the glory of the poetry itself, I did tend to skim over Austin's and Mabel's effusive love letters - they wrote all the time to each other apparently. I also had reservations about the awkwardness of Alice and Nick's relationship, their often terse conversations, the see-sawing emotions.
    Towards the end though it begins to make more sense, as other characters step in, offer insight and help Alice grow up a little. I liked the advice Jack gives Alice about her screenplay.  As an English teacher who teaches 'narrative structure', he suggests she needs to start by figuring out how the play will end and that will define the story as a whole. Alice of course finds that the ending isn't quite how she'd originally imagined it and Nicholson ties this in nicely with an interesting conclusion to the novel as well.
     The Lovers of Amherst is well researched and evokes brilliantly its Massachusetts college town setting. The writing is assured and the characters well rounded and interesting, reminding me it is time I read some more of these interconnected novels. You can tell Nicholson really cares about his cast of characters, as he can't seem to let them go. I am reminded a little of Mary Wesley in this respect and wonder where Nicholson will take us next.

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