I was quite excited to stumble across this thick historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln. I’ve been deeply interested in the Lincolns since age eight, with the interest waxing and waning over time. So many books focus on Pres. Lincoln and his youngest sons Willie and Tad, but not too much attention has been paid to the long-suffering Mary.
Overall, I think I’d give this a 3 out of 5. I read every word, and overall was held by the story and Ms. Newman’s writing, but there were a number of things which disappointed me.
1. While the wraparound segments in the mental hospital were an interesting idea, I don’t think they fit so well with the main text. I personally don’t like being jerked back and forth between past and present. There needs to be more balance with such a structure. I’ve also found out there were no bars on the windows, and no records of patients being killed by overdoses of medication like laudanum.
2. It was jarring to see the R-word used several times, even as a medical term! That word wasn’t even used in that way in the 19th century. Did Ms. Newman not think we’d understand a bygone classification like feebleminded, moron, or imbecile?
3. Robert Lincoln is portrayed as the antagonist, a complete villain, with no human emotions or sympathy. From birth, he’s depicted as cold, unfeeling, distant, antagonistic towards his mother and later wife, cruel, etc. In real life, two recesses had to be called at Mary’s insanity hearing because Robert was crying too much to testify. He also stayed by his baby brother Tad on his deathbed, and was very grieved to lose his final surviving sibling.
4. Speaking of, the wrong age is given for Tad at one point.
5. I obviously know the focus isn’t supposed to be on Pres. Lincoln, but some rather important events of his life are left out. Why wouldn’t his wife mention he started growing a beard, for example? Or how about him sneaking into Washington in disguise, on another train, for fear of assassination during the final leg of his journey to the White House?
6. Based on what came before, I honestly didn’t realise at first Ms. Newman was actually describing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I thought Mary was having another drug-induced hallucination or dream!
7. I was quite disappointed such short schrift was given to the Lincolns’ White House life. How about some descriptions of dinners and teas with important dignitaries and generals? Mary’s young friend Julia Taft, the older sister of Tad and Willie’s friends Bud and Holly, all of whom were regular visitors?
8. This is one of those books where so many pages are devoted to the subject’s early life, not much room is left to properly delve into the middle and later years.
9. I don’t want to read sex scenes with real-life people! I’ve zero problem reading or writing sex scenes in general, but I don’t want to picture Pres. Lincoln of all people getting it on! Forget the famous or heroic aspect; what person wants complete strangers, 100+ years later, writing about her or his most private, intimate moments for the whole world?
For that matter, I don’t want to read about anyone (real people or fictional characters) relieving themselves either! Both of these things are trends that need to go away!
10. Is there any evidence Mary seduced her husband before marriage to force him into marrying her, and her family into accepting the relationship? I’m well-aware premarital sex has always existed, but the way this storyline was handled seemed so unrealistic and bizarre!
11. Ms. Newman depicts Mary as sex-obsessed and Pres. Lincoln as frigid and undersexed, with this imbalance of passion deeply affecting their relationship. She even has Mary thinking about sex when her husband’s on his deathbed! In an earlier chapter, she depicts Mary having an affair when she’s shopping in New York.
Overall, I did enjoy a good portion of the book. I truly felt for this woman who suffered so much, and lived in a time when there wasn’t much recourse but a mental hospital and “medicine” that made her condition worse. It’s just that the execution was lacking, and I felt like a voyeur reading the sex scenes.