Review: Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen

4 Stars

I received a copy of Twain’s End as an ARC from NetGalley.  This review is my own and was in no way influenced by the fact that it’s an ARC.

As you may have guessed, Twain’s End has something to do with the famous Mark Twain.  But this isn’t your typical tale about Samuel Clemens and his alter ego, Mark Twain.  This story focuses on his secretary, Isabel Lyons.  She was with him for 6 years and did practically everything for him and his family from taking his dictation, to being their bookkeeper, to taking care of his grown children.  The woman he fired one week after her wedding to his accountant, a wedding that he gave his blessing to.  The woman he decried and defamed with a nearly 500 page manifest going over everything she ever did to him and where he called her every name in the book.

The people in the book are real and many of the relationships are also real and can be historically proven, or at least there was enough speculation that the questions showed up in newspapers and magazines at the time.  Twain’s End is a work of fiction, but it’s a very well researched piece of fiction.  There was still a lot of speculation in the book and the author decided to expand on two of the main rumors that were going around the country and even the world at the time.  That Mark Twain and Isabel Lyons were romantically involved and he was going to marry her.  And also that Clara Clemens, his daughter, was having an affair with Will Wark, her accompanist.  These two stories intertwine through much of the book and each one seems to explain the animosity that they feel for one another later in life.

Those who see Mark Twain as a beloved author and place him up on a pedestal, may have some issues with this book.  He isn’t always the nice guy and in some ways, it’s almost as though he is the true Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Mark is funny and warm and engaging.  Sam is a bit of a grumpy old man who tends to lash out at those who love him the most.

Isabel Lyons becomes the personal secretary to Mark Twain, but she never calls him that.  He’s always Mr. Clemens or the King or even just Sam.  But never Mark.  She causes a sensation because she begins living under the same roof as him and his family.  Rumors begin to fly.  Will Isabel become the next Mrs. Clemens?  The first Mrs. Clemens isn’t even dead yet!

It was easy to identify Mark Twain, mostly because he’s such a well known icon.  But the author does a very good job of giving you a picture of what he looked like and even what he probably smelled like.  The descriptions were rich and you always had a sense of who the characters were and each one had a depth to them, even Mrs. Lyons, Isabel’s mother.  You want to write her off as the overbearing mother worried about her spinster daughter, but she comes across as so hilariously lost that you can’t help but like her.  You go from like to dislike of a single character very quickly.  Each one of them has their own flaws and the more they begin to show their true colors, the more your skin crawls anytime they enter the scene.

The one person I didn’t like was Isabel.  I wished she had been given more of a backbone.  I wish she had stood up for herself more.  There are times where you just want to slap her silly.  In one scene she’s standing up to her King and telling him like it is, and in the next, she’s wilted like a cut flower.  I guess I just wanted more from her…not unlike Sam.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book and I think anyone who is interested in a good story with just enough truth to make it even more interesting.  I always like seeing historical figures in a different light, especially when it’s done outside of stuffy biographies and historical texts.  I really enjoy it when an author breathes new life into an old subject.

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