Wednesday, October 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Twain's End by Lynn Cullen

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

After thoroughly enjoying Lynn Cullen’s previous book, Mrs. Poe, I was eager to get my hands on her latest novel, Twain’s End. This rather intense book is the story of the doomed relationship between Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain and his long-time secretary, personal servant, and, well, lapdog, Isabel Lyons.

Miss Lyons is a well bred, highly educated daughter of a society woman and a university professor. Her prospects should have been bright, but her father died bankrupt, leaving Isabel and her mother destitute, sewing pincushions and selling them to friends to get by. Fortunately (or not) Isabel is hired as a nanny and, through connections, meets Samuel Clemens. Later, she is dismissed from that job and hired as a personal secretary to Livy Clemens, the invalid wife of the famous author. It isn’t Livy who needs a secretary, but rather the entire family needs someone to take care of them. The competent, intelligent Isabel takes on the task, mainly because she, like everyone else in the U.S., is an ardent admirer of the humorist.

For seven years, Isabel devotes herself, heart and soul, to the welfare of the Clemens family, though in fact, she is devoted only to Samuel. She pities and resents the wife she never sees and puts up with the daughters, Clara and Jean. The daughters are intermittently ignored or verbally abused by their self-absorbed father. Isabel attempts to befriend them, partially out of true concern but also because she has to maintain her place in the household. The attraction between Isabel and Samuel is strong, and she convinces herself that she holds a special place in his heart, ignoring evidence that he has felt similar extramarital attractions in the past. He’s a master manipulator, playing on her pity by occasionally letting down his guard and showing her how vulnerable he is, and how much he despises the need to continue to play the role of Mark Twain, America’s Sweetheart.

The novel very realistically portrays the narcissistic artist and a woman caught in his web. Isabel is pretty and intelligent, but has few resources outside her ability to please her employer, who feeds on constant female admiration. He can be as cruel and foul-tempered with her as his personality dictates, and Isabel forgives him because she understands him as no one else can.

This is a fascinating portrayal of "Mark Twain" and an all-too-credible journey through the late stage of Twain’s life and career, supported by the devoted secretary he very publicly repudiates before his death. To me, the main characters are not likeable, but for some reason that made the story even more powerful.

1 comment:

  1. This is the story of how Isabel gets sucked into the late-in-life Samuel Clemens' life, what it does for her - and to her - and who she becomes in the face of adversity. It's a terrific read, bringing to life a very specific time and place. I don't want to give away the plot secrets, but it's a read well worth your time. I haven't read Mrs. Poe but I will read it now. Well done.

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