Mark Twain’s dark side.
Historical novelist Cullen (Mrs. Poe, 2013, etc.) returns to the plot of her last novel, which imagined the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe, married and a literary star, and Frances Osgood, a young poet who worshiped him. Now, she focuses on Twain, the most famous writer in 19th-century America, and his young assistant, Isabel Lyon, who meets him when she is 25, works for him for 7 years, and falls passionately in love with him. He calls her Lioness; she calls him King. After the sickly Livy Clemens dies, Isabel becomes Twain’s hostess, yearning to fulfill “wifely duties” beyond cuddling, fondling, and kissing. She hopes to marry him, but although the man Sam Clemens lusts after her—as he did many other women—the famous author Mark Twain believes marrying her would ruin his reputation. Cullen portrays the author as a Jekyll-and-Hyde character: Twain, the warm and charming humorist, beloved by his fans; Clemens, an egotistical, possessive, tyrannical bully, humiliating his wife, brutalizing his daughters, despised by those closest to him. “Everyone I love best suffers,” he confesses to Isabel. “He loathes himself,” Livy explains, “and everyone’s adulation only makes him loathe himself more.” Yet despite the repeated acts of cruelty that she witnesses, Isabel, astoundingly, never wavers in her adoration—not even when he lashes out at her after she finally marries his business manager, damning her as “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut.” Because Cullen succeeds in portraying Clemens as so unsympathetic, Isabel’s devotion becomes a problem for the novel. She comes across as star-struck, so dazzled by his attentions that she rationalizes all his execrable behavior.
A more nuanced character would have strengthened this sad story of futile, desperate love.