Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 15, 2013

A vivid and compelling novel about a woman who becomes entangled in an affair with Edgar Allan Poe—at the same time she becomes the unwilling confidante of his much-younger wife. It is 1845, and Frances Osgood is desperately trying to make a living as a writer in New York; not an easy task for a woman—especially one with two children and a philandering portrait painter as her husband. As Frances tries to sell her work, she finds that editors are only interested in writing similar to that of the new renegade literary sensation Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem, “The Raven” has struck a public nerve. She meets the handsome and mysterious Poe at a literary party, and the two have an immediate connection. Poe wants Frances to meet with his wife since she claims to be an admirer of her poems, and Frances is curious to see the woman whom Edgar married. As Frances spends more and more time with the intriguing couple, her intense attraction for Edgar brings her into dangerous territory. And Mrs. Poe, who acts like an innocent child, is actually more manipulative and threatening than she appears. As Frances and Edgar’s passionate affair escalates, Frances must decide whether she can walk away before it’s too late... Set amidst the fascinating world of New York’s literati, this smart and sexy novel offers a unique view into the life of one of history’s most unforgettable literary figures.

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Ah distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December, 
that at the library I spied, a fictional tale of Poe's young bride. 
Over the pages I did pour, but the book fast became a chore, 
the text echoing verbatim lore, a novel that had come before.
After that I swore - no more!

Edgar Allan Poe
It is a poor effort, I admit, but my comments on Lynn Cullen's Mrs. Poe are closely tied to the incident described in the paltry parody above this passage so please, bear with me while I invite you on a stroll  down memory lane. 

In December 2011, while browsing the new release shelves at my local library, I noticed Lenore Hart's The Raven's Bride. Intrigued, I brought the book home with me and while doing some background reading, realized the novel was at the center of a massive controversy citing allegations that Hart had plagiarized her work from Cothburn O'Neal's The Very Young Mrs. Poe. Not being one to place absolute trust in the news, I tracked down the older novel to see with my own eyes just how closely the books resembled one another. I was floored with shock by the correlation between each of the texts, but also dismayed at my lack of enthusiasm for the plot regardless of who was telling the story. Try as I might I couldn't make myself accept Edgar and Virginia's marriage as a union of passion. When all was said and done, the media squabble paired with my lukewarm assessment of both efforts left me with a horrendous headache and absolutely no desire to read anything remotely related to the macabre poet ever again. 

Now my opinion being what it was you can probably understand why I had to fight the impulse to run far and fast when first hearing of Cullen's Mrs. Poe, but as more and more of my fellow readers took interest in the novel, I found myself faced with my own growing curiosity. Having never been fully satisfied by Hart or O'Neal, I wondered if there was even a remote possibility that Cullen would succeed where her predecessors had failed. So there you have it. I began this title a self-proclaimed skeptic with naught but a prayer that this go-round would prove better than my last. I never expected to fall in love with this book, but that my friends, is exactly what happened. 

First and foremost, Cullen made Edgar a really believable romantic lead. Though Poe was quite a ladies' man, popular culture paints a very different picture and at the end of the day, this false perception is what Cullen was going up against when writing this book. For it to have any hope of success she needed to strip away the persona of fame and show readers the man beneath it. It is a challenge she rose to and executed with flawless grace.

Of course, Cullen has no difficulty tackling human emotion be it the suffering of a bereft mother, the longing of a fatherless child or the dangerous machinations of twisted mind and darkened heart. Deliciously provocative, no subject is off limits. Jealousy, obsession, revenge, desire, disloyalty - it is all here. 

Frances Sargent Osgood
Cullen further embraced her subject matter by embedding hidden meaning within her narrative. Taking a cue from Poe and Osgood's passionate public exchange of poetry, a reader can deduce much by looking between the lines of Cullen's work. 

One more note of praise and then I swear I'll rest my pen, but I would be committing a grave disservice if I did not mention the authentic atmospheric quality of this book. Seamlessly woven within the fabric of Poe's complicated love life is the history of New York City. Its changing landscape and growing population making it is as much a character of the novel as Griswold, Samuel or Eliza. 

Spellbinding and seductive, Mrs. Poe is an impossibly addictive tale of tragic romance that refuses to let you go even after the final page. 

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Madness spreads like a drop of ink in water. Soon one does not know who is mad and who is not.
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Lynn Cullen said...

It's appropriate that I came across this review late at night. Coincidence? You know what I think about that after reading the book! Thank you so much for taking the time to post this gorgeous and entertaining review.

Anonymous said...

I'm flattered you like it and thank you for the feedback. :)

Diana Silva said...

This is definitely on my to-read shelf!