Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Review: Mary

I just finished the book Mary by Janis Cooke Newman. It’s a speculative fiction piece on Mary Todd Lincoln. I really love historical fiction. I feel like it’s cheating – the author does all of the hard work by reading dry biographies and sifting through countless facts and documents. Then, if they’re any good, they turn history into something that is a delight to read.

As a reader, I feel like I’m getting an education while being entertained. Sure, I know that there is a lot that was created by the author (it’s called speculative fiction for a reason) but I had no idea, for example, that Mary Todd Lincoln had to endure the loss of three of her sons, her mom, and her husband. I also didn’t know that she was committed to an insane asylum by her son. (If I had to go through even half of what she did, you could cart me off to the loony bin too.)

The Husband (mine, not Mary's) is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to history, and I respect him for that. My brain tends to forget everything relating to history shortly after I have to take a test over the material. Since I haven’t had a history test in approximately 15 years, you can imagine that there aren’t a lot of synapses firing in the history section of my brain. That’s why I love picking up historical/speculative fiction. I feel like I just took the most interesting history class ever.

I think being a historical fiction writer would be very tough though. There’re always going to be people out there who are well educated on the subject. If I were writing a historical novel, I’d be worried that reviewers would contradict my story with facts of their own. I’m sure the authors and editors of these books employ fact-checkers to check for the authenticity of the material. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter since it is fiction after all.

At any rate, the book is worth the time it takes to read it. It's a long read - over 650 pages, but I finished it in about a week, which means that a.) I found it thoroughly enjoyable and b.) I have neglected my family, fitness schedule, and housework during the times I sat on the tush reading it.

I found this to be a great read, but even so, I found a few of the characters a bit one-dimensional. I was disappointed in the way Mary's son Robert was portrayed as a villain pretty much from conception. I understand why Newman chose this route for him, but I think there had to be more complexity to their relationship than just a mother who yearned for her oldest son’s affection only to get the cold shoulder from him. Readers who expect to get an understanding of what made President Lincoln tick will not find it in this book. Newman created an interesting personality to Lincoln, one that supported the reasons for Mary’s actions. He is cast as someone prone to depression, who doesn’t trust passionate character, which forces Mary to suppress her passion for him throughout their marriage. It’s an interesting way to portray the man who has been revered by millions for many, many years, but it's not a deep, complete picture of Lincoln.

If the supporting characters’ development was a bit thin, Newman makes up for it in Mary. If you look at the plain facts of the crazy things she did after Lincoln’s death, it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t want to keep her locked up in Belleview Place. Newman breathes so much life into Mary that it’s easy to believe you’re reading the diary of a woman so consumed with grief and fear of what she’ll lose next that she’s forced to go out and buy hundreds of dollars worth of curtain lace to keep her safe. Newman shows us the rationale behind Mary Todd Lincoln’s obsession with shopping and purchasing outrageous items that she stores away in a closet. I think it’s a success when an author can create a world in which that definitely odd behavior is justified and sensible to the reader.

There are many more parts of this book – spiritualism (séances and mediums), infidelity, feminism, complications of family and class differences, and of course the slavery debate, which is why it took 650 pages for the story to unfold. Like I said, definitely worth the read.

Now... anyone have suggestions on other speculative fiction works? I’d love to have them…


Jenster said...

Oooo!!! My favorite kind of book!!!

I love Philippa Gregory for this very reason. But you've read her stuff, haven't you?

Okay. I'm off to put this on my list.

Monnik said...

Yes! I love Phillipa Gregory. I devour her stuff in a weekend, usually. (A very cozy, yet nonproductive weekend.)

Barrie said...

Love your thought that historical writers turn dry boring history into something entertaining. :)

I'm about to start The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Looks different and strange and interesting...

Tiffany said...

I love that you are reviewing books! You are keeping B and N very happy! I keep ordering the books you review.

Have you read Caroline Erickson? She write a couple really good ones!

Prairie Chicken said...

Try Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.

Little Miss Sunshine State said...

I read Mary and also loved it.
I visited Hildene in VT which is Robert Todd Lincoln's home. Our guide and a college intern there discussed the "Insanity Papers" with us because someone in our group asked a question.

Apparently the parts about her severe depression and outrageous shopping trips were true. I read that if she had lived in our times, she would have been diagnosed as bi-polar.

Have you read One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus?
It is a Historical Fiction about a supposed exchange of White brides to the Cheyenne in exchange for horses to the U.S government. It is written in the form of a journal of one of the brides.
This book made me cry. When I was done, I held it in my hands because I didn't want it to end.

I read it in 2001 and it is still one of my Top 5 favorites.

Also, if you like 12th and 13th century religious fiction (or Celtic, Pagan) try Confessions Of A Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley.
I also liked Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross.