*I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen is a fictional portrayal of the relationship between Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his secretary Isabel Lyon. The novel follows Isabel from her first interactions with the iconic humorist, to Clemens’ death in 1910. Using pages from Ms. Lyon’s diary as its basis and supplemented with newspaper articles from the time, Twain’s End explores the eccentricities of Mr. Clemens’ personality as well as the complicated relationship he had with his wife, his daughters, and Ms. Lyon herself.
Man, I really wanted to love this book. It’s no secret that by and large, I detest nonfiction. I’ve never read a straight-up biography in my life, and am not planning on starting any time soon. That being said, I’ve been a fan of Mark Twain for a long time and was really excited to learn more about him through a medium that I might actually enjoy.
First, the good parts. This novel had quite a few aspects about it that I thoroughly enjoyed. Ms. Cullen has a knack for writing a very believable character. I was enthralled with Isabel, Samuel and Clara and felt like I was truly getting to know them as I was reading. It was fascinating especially to see the peaks and valleys of the relationship between Isabel Lyon and Clara Clemens. It reminded me of how relationships often go between women and why I don’t have many female friends. Women are drama, and Ms. Cullen paints a picture that will have most female readers yelling “UGH! YES! THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT IT’S LIKE!”As I read about Mr. Clemens, I grew to loathe, pity, and love him all in a single breath. I never for a moment wondered at Isabel’s fascination for him, but I wanted to beat him with a frying pan all the same. Honestly, the description of him throughout Twain’s End reminded me of all the things I’ve read recently about Ernest Hemingway, and that’s not necessarily a compliment to the character of either man.
Also, the imagery was just absolutely stunning throughout the entire book. Much of the book takes place in Italy, and the descriptions are so spot-on that the reader begins to see the art and smell the flowers that dot the Italian landscape the author paints for them. As talented as Mr. Twain was in his description of the American South, so is the talent of Ms. Cullen in her description of Italy, Bermuda, and New York in this novel.
Now, for the bad. This book took me a ridiculously long time to read. As a general trend, a novel of this length would take me around two days to read. This one consumed five. While I was enjoying getting to know the characters and exploring parts of the world that I couldn’t imagine visiting in my wildest dreams, I kept waiting for the novel to get to the point…and waiting…and waiting. I really didn’t feel like the novel reached its inevitable climax until the very end, and by then, it really was too late.
Another thing that I really didn’t jibe with in Twain’s End was the constant changing of perspective. While I appreciate Ms. Cullen’s attempt at allowing the reader inside the mind of a multitude of characters, I really feel like she bit off too much with this one. The switching of perspectives was inconsistent to an extent where it often took a page or two for me to realize whose experience I was reading. And, once I was able to settle into and follow a perspective, it changed!
While this novel didn’t have an epilogue in the traditional sense, a pseudo-epilogue could be found in the afterward where Lynn Cullen details her research process. I honestly feel like this was the best part of the entire novel. I learned more in this few pages, and found the most satisfaction here than I did in the entirety of the book, and it was (gasp!) nonfiction! Overall, while this novel certainly had its strong points, it wasn’t one that left me satisfied, wanting more, or feeling like it would leave a lasting impression.