Edgar Allen Poe, master of the gothic tale, becomes shrouded in even more gloom in Cullen’s (Reign of Madness, 2011, etc.) insipid historical novel about his relationship with fellow author Frances Sargent Locke Osgood.
In the winter of 1845, Osgood finds herself relying on friends Russell and Eliza Bartlett for food and lodging while her philandering husband, portrait artist Samuel, is off with his latest romantic conquest. Although she’s had some success with her writing—Puss in Boots and her poetry—Osgood worries about supporting her two young daughters. At a gathering of New York elite, she meets Poe, who admires her talent. Following widespread publication of "The Raven," Poe has become the most famous and feted writer in America. He’s also despised by many for his scathing reviews of their literary efforts and his air of superiority. The fact that he married his first cousin, Virginia, when she was only 13 supplies fodder for the gossip mills and, eventually, so does the relationship that develops between Osgood and Poe. Although they try to mask their attraction, they spend time together with his mother-in-law/aunt and Mrs. Poe, who is desperately ill and annoyingly childish. Osgood is commissioned to write a piece about the Poes’ lives, but the plans fall through; however, it doesn’t end her relationship with the Poe family. Even though she’s uncomfortable with her situation, and suspects that Mrs. Poe’s need to compete with her for Poe’s attention is more ominous than mere jealousy suggests, Osgood is unable to break away. The pair continues to communicate in the form of published poems, during arranged outings and at social events, but their love is further complicated by public disapproval, Mrs. Poe’s decline, Samuel’s brief reappearance, a life-altering decision and harrowing near-death experiences. Although Cullen attempts to portray Osgood and Poe as sympathetic characters, it’s difficult to identify with either as they teeter back and forth between feelings of guilt, anguish, fear and defiance.
The narrative might have been more interesting had the author focused on the relationship between the title character and her husband.