Historical thriller veteran Bayard (Lucky Strikes, 2016, etc.) finds suspense in the three-cornered relationship of Mary Todd, her awkward but compelling suitor, Abraham Lincoln, and his closest companion, debonair Joshua Speed.
About to turn 21 when she arrives in Springfield in 1839, Mary teeters on the brink of old-maidenhood. She’s too sharp-tongued and politically astute for the town’s eligible men—including, she thinks regretfully, handsome merchant Joshua Speed, whom she initially finds more charming than his friend Lincoln, who is as tongue-tied with ladies as he is plainspokenly eloquent at the Illinois statehouse. But Mary becomes intrigued by Lincoln, a rising Whig politician who finds a woman with brains and savvy enticing rather than off-putting. She doesn’t yet realize how destabilizing their budding romance is for Lincoln and Speed. For two years the men have shared a room and a bed, not in itself unusual for 19th-century bachelors, but as Lincoln hungrily learned the ways of polite society from his new friend, a deeper intimacy developed. By the time Mary appears, Lincoln and Speed, each profoundly lonely for his own reasons, share an unusually intense bond apparent to all. Alternating between Mary’s and Joshua’s points of view, Bayard chronicles the bumpy progression of the Lincoln-Todd courtship, its painful blow-up, and Lincoln’s subsequent collapse into crippling depression. There are no villains in this acute and compassionate portrait: When Speed warns Lincoln that Mary “will drain [you] dry,” we can see there’s some truth in this statement but even more truth in Lincoln’s retort, “Is it this girl you object to? Or is it any girl?” The author commendably refrains from imposing 21st-century sexual mores on the Lincoln-Speed relationship, profoundly loving but not physical in Bayard’s depiction. Mary Todd, by contrast, gets a welcome contemporary reappraisal as a woman of spirit and will, not the needy hysteric painted by traditional historians.
Not a lot of action, but in Bayard’s skilled hands, three complicated people groping toward a new phase in their lives is all the plot you need.