Monday, January 4, 2016

Twain's End by Lynn Cullen

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Author/Netgalley
Read: October 23, 2015

In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy? In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen reimagines the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909. Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings and letters, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End explores this real-life tale of doomed love.

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Clara Clemens
Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe was one of my favorite reads of 2013. To quote myself, I found it ‘an impossibly addictive tale of tragic romance’ and still recommend it to readers on a regular basis which is why it should come as no surprise that I jumped when Cullen herself asked if I’d like to review Twain’s End. I was flattered and while Mark Twain has never been a particular favorite of mine, the idea sparked a certain curiosity and I accepted her offer. 

Looking back I have to say that I loved Cullen’s style and tone. The writing flows nicely and the book moves along at a moderate and engaging pace. I learned a lot about Sam Clemens over the course of the narrative and enjoyed the insight the novel afforded. Cullen’s characterization was fickle and difficult and I liked the dynamic her illustration of the famed writer created within the fabric of the story. In a lot of ways Cullen treats Mark Twain and Sam Clemens as two different people and I think that allowed her to explore some really interesting concept material.

Unfortunately there were many elements of the novel that didn’t work for me. Structurally I was disappointed with the fractured timeline, I felt the author spent too much time with Helen Keller, I was confused by the superfluous single chapter told from Olivia’s point of view and I didn’t feel Isabel’s relationship with Sam as believable as the one Cullen created between Frances and Edgar. Most concerning, however, was that I finished the novel feeling it had missed the mark. To be perfectly blunt I feel it would have been stronger if it’d had emphasized Clara’s relationship with her father over the supposed romance the writer may or may not have enjoyed with his personal secretary.

Cullen’s illustration of the tension between father and daughter is palpable. It captivated my imagination and I loved how it highlighted the hypocrisy in Sam’s nature. There were moments that I disliked Clara, but I ultimately felt her a product of her environment, a woman struggling against the repressive rule of a man who refused her to allow her the freedom to pursue her own dreams. I don’t mean to deride the story Cullen created for Isabel, but I think this relationship more compelling and wish it had been featured more prominently. 

Atmospherically I liked what Cullen presented her audience, but I feel the isolated nature of Sam’s life at Stormfield restricted Cullen in a lot of ways. One of the things I loved about Mrs. Poe was how the novel recreated the buzz and electricity of the literary communities of 19th century New York. She didn’t have the same opportunities with Twain’s End and while I enjoyed her interpretation of life in the mansion, I often longed for the color and excitement I know she’s capable of creating on the page. 

At the end of the day, I don’t feel Twain’s End as strong as Cullen’s previous publication, but it still stands as a remarkable illustration of the man behind some of America’s most beloved classics and is definitely something I’d recommend to both Twain enthusiasts and fans of biographic fiction. 

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Mark Twain was not a real person. The person they were addressing was Samuel Cle­mens. But The King never corrected anyone on this. Instead, something inside him seemed to shift when he heard it, as if the mortal Sam Cle­mens were stepping aside for his slow-moving doppelgänger, Twain.
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Magdalena Johansson said...

Great review Erin! I have this book in my want-to-read-list and I hope someday to have the pleasure of reading this one and Mrs. Poe! :)

Erin Davies said...

Thank you! Both books are wonderful. You won't be disappointed!

Lynn Cullen said...

Erin, thank you for taking the time to examine my novel so carefully. I'm complimented that you gave it such deep thought. I'm pleased that you so well understood how Clara's inner turmoil was the bellwether of Twain's downfall. In real life, the damage he did to his daughter foretold the damage he would do to himself and shed light on his relationships with other loved ones. When first thinking about writing about Twain, I considered telling the story through Clara's eyes, but turned away after I got to know Isabel Lyon. I couldn't bear for this woman who gave her all to Twain to remain infamous through the ages. To this day, some people take Twain's demented "Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript" as the truth and dismiss this hardworking, bright woman as being an untrustworthy alcoholic. Isabel Lyon's lifespan alone disputes that--what alcoholic lives to be 94? I was infuriated that he destroyed this exceptionally capable woman by using his position of power--who would believe her vs. the most beloved man in the world? The truth wasn't enough to save Isabel Lyon during her lifetime. It was important to me to try to right that wrong.

Thank you again, Erin, for sharing your insights with your readers about Twain's End and Mrs. Poe. I enjoy your writing and am always interested in what you have to say.


Colleen Turner said...

I loved Mrs. Poe as well and am excited to read Twain's End. Thank you for the great review, as always, Erin!

Erin Davies said...

You're welcome Lynn! Thank you so much for stopping by and offering us a behind the scenes glimpse at your work!

Mrs. Poe is one of my favorite biographic pieces Colleen. I hope you enjoy Twain's End too. :)