HENRY AND CLARA by Thomas Mallon


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Mallon (Rockets and Rodeos, 1992) has created an enjoyable, if depressing, novel about Henry and Clara Rathbone, who were sitting in the theater box with Mary and Abraham Lincoln on the night of the president's assassination. The fatal and fateful event appears to have pushed at least one of them over the edge, but even if the two young friends of the Lincolns had not been witnesses to that moment in history, they would have been a strange couple. Henry's widowed mother married Clara's widowed father when he was 11 and she was 13, and the two were raised in the same household. Upon introducing them Henry's mother instructed Clara to think of him as a cousin, cheerfully hoping to ""defeat complexity with inaccuracy."" This quasifamily relationship did not stop the two from falling in love, but due to their parents' protests and Henry's involvement in the Civil War, they were not married until 1867, when they were in their early 30s. After Lincoln's death, rumors fly about Henry's inefficacy at the crucial moment, and even in later years that night haunts him, as in a scene at a dinner party when all the guests turn in Henry's direction after someone comments on what happens to people during moments of panic. Eventually, however, it appears that Henry's talk of all the whispering around him hints at schizophrenia and other psychological problems. He becomes intensely jealous of his flirtatious wife, who does her best to get Henry an ambassador's post abroad, since he drags the family -- including three children -- to Europe yearly in an apparent effort to gain anonymity. With a final, dreadful act, Henry makes a last attempt to keep together the family he believes is leaving him. No magic, but solid writing about two casualties of history.

Pub Date: Aug. 16th, 1994
Page count: 362pp
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin