Irish-born McCrea’s stellar debut imagines the lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, not men usually associated with romance, through the eyes of Engels' illiterate common-law wife, Lizzie Burns.
Lizzie’s voice—earthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheming—grabs the reader from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. As the novel opens in 1870, Lizzie is moving with Frederick to London as his live-in lover. He wants to be closer to Marx, whom he has long supported financially. Lizzie is excited to move into a grand house but has mixed feelings about Karl’s wife, Jenny, herself a fascinating combination of bourgeois sensibilities, love of family, and survival instincts. In the past, Jenny was not kind to Lizzie’s older sister, Mary, the first Burns sister with whom Frederick was involved. Growing up in Manchester, the Burns girls worked at Ermen & Engels, the mill that German-born Frederick came to manage for his family in 1842. Mary quickly fell into a serious love affair with Frederick. Although he left Manchester for eight years, “writing his books and chasing the great revolutions around Europe,” Mary eventually quit the mill and lived openly with him. When Lizzie’s own romantic involvement with Moss, an alcoholic Fenian, soured, she moved in with Mary to keep house. She witnessed Mary’s relationship with Frederick turn turbulent after he apparently fathered an illegitimate baby with the Marxes’ maid, Nim. Shortly after Mary’s death, Lizzie’s own sexual liaison with Frederick began. By 1870 their relationship has endured—even thrived—for years, providing for Lizzie attraction, affection, and practical financial security. Forget Marx and Engels as authors of The Communist Manifesto. For Lizzie (and McCrea), social mores trump politics, while individual loyalties and needs are what ultimately matter.
Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun?