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By Lynn Cullen
Gallery Books / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
I don't know if it's this particular book, or the fact that I simply don't read much historical fiction to begin with, but I found Lynn Cullen's Twain's End a hard bird to wrap my mind around, in terms of deciding what exactly I thought about it. On the one hand, it's a very faithful and informative look at a true story -- the story of Samuel Clemens, that is, otherwise known as "Mark Twain" of this book's title, specifically a look at his later years when he was elderly and a bit of a curmudgeon, our particular story beginning during his family's famous extended trip to Italy in 1903 (where his sickly wife finally died), moving on to Clemens' grandiose home in Hartford, Connecticut in the 19-'Aughts (inspired directly by the aristocratic villas he visited in Italy), and finally ending with his death in 1910. Which was fine for what it was, although as someone who already knew a lot about Clemens' life, a whole lot of this book felt like someone basically writing a Wikipedia entry in the form of a narrative novel, which I must admit I didn't care for. (A very typical example: "He might have been feted around the world by royalty and men of mark, awarded an honorary degree from Oxford University in England, and made a boon companion of the rich and powerful in New York, but at heart he was a Mississippi steamboat pilot whose idea of luxurious decor was that found in a New Orleans brothel." Citation needed, user LCullen!)
None of this, though, touches on the much more troubling part of this book, which is the "fiction" part of the "historical fiction" -- namely, Cullen uses as her book's framing device an obscure conspiracy theory about an elderly Clemens having a secret, never-proven-in-real-life affair with his private secretary Isabel Lyon, trying to shoehorn together whatever small amount of true facts exist about that situation in order to present us with the typical three-act plot of a contemporary relationship thriller, which feels ethically wrong during every step of the entire process; and especially egregious is her decision to portray Clemens' daughter Clara like the villain of a chick-lit novel (think "The Devil Wears Petticoats"), a scheming, slutty control freak who detests any woman her precious papa lavishes attention on, and who is just sitting around for most of this novel wringing her hands evilly, waiting for her parents to die so she can finally go be the man-attracting opera star in Europe that she's always wanted to be. All of this just sat really uncomfortably with me, just the ridiculous amounts of license that Cullen takes with these real people who were still alive only a century ago, forcing them into this convenient narrative that may or may not have actually happened in real life just so she'll have a contemporary novel that feels more like the crappy Nicholas Sparks bullshit that middle-aged suburban women can't seem to get enough of. Like I said, I don't know if this is a problem specifically with Cullen's book itself, or is just an unfortunate side effect of historical fiction in general; but by the end the whole thing had just left this bad taste in my mouth, a book that is both overly explanatory of the true info and way too speculative about the unknown parts, with an uneven pace to boot that is either too slow or too fast on any given page but never just the right speed. Although written competently, I am still choosing today to not recommend it to a general audience, other than those who are already fans of such too-much-license historical fiction and who won't be nearly as bothered by all the liberties Cullen takes here.
Out of 10: 5.9