A skilled historical novelist (Dead Water, 2004, etc.) limns an absolutely convincing portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln—and that’s the catch.
She’s so depressing. In Hambly’s evocation, her temper is execrable, her tongue venomous, her close relationships all problematical. With her husband, the legendary president, the descriptive word is strained; with her son Robert, it’s savage. She’s a grudge-holder and her enemies are forever, her friendships, for the most part, transitory. This is a woman who clings to paranoia as if it were her birthright. Hambly begins her story in 1875, ten years after that horrific night at the Ford Theater when John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into the president’s head, drenching Mrs. Lincoln in his blood. Wintry, better say glacial, Robert, having decided magisterially that his mother is insane, has convened what amounts to a kangaroo court and brought her before it. Predictably, she’s judged to be as mentally incompetent as her son says she is and consigned to an asylum. Mrs. Lincoln does not go quietly, and while she rails against this latest betrayal, Hambly takes us back and forth in time to examine other betrayals. Even as an antebellum belle, she is tormented and tormenting. She meets Lincoln, is powerfully attracted, an attraction at first mutual. But he’s wary, senses danger, attempts to elude her. She traps him with a lie. As first lady, she’s a political cross for her husband to bear, which he does, patiently, even in the face of a hysterical demand that he fire—of all people—Ulysses S. Grant because she can’t abide his wife. Is she crazy? Everybody who knows her knows she is, says someone closer to her than most: “Crazy though not insane.”
To be sure, there’s gallantry in Mary Lincoln’s struggle against her demons. But 600-plus pages with a disagreeable woman tends to undercut empathy.