I have to admit I am a huge fan of Lynn Cullen; she’s an awesome person and a wonderfully talented writer. Her novel, Mrs. Poe (a national bestseller that has been named a Target Book Club Pick, an NPR 2013 Great Read, and an Indie Next List selection) is one of my favorite all time historical fiction books. I was very excited to secure her next novel, Twain’s End, for review once it came out in paperback this summer. I had followed its substantial and positive hardcover run with delight so I dove right in not longer after receiving it. I enjoy historical fiction novels that take on writers and artists of the past and bring to light some of the central support characters in their lives and uncover mysteries about them.
In Twain’s End we meet Isabel Lyons, a secretary who was damned through all history for her alleged misdoings to Mark Twain (pen name of Sam Clemens). We learn her true story uncovered exquisitely by Lynn. We also get a closer look at the man who was Mark Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens.
Studying English in college, many classic authors and poets were read and studied. Twain was never a favorite of mine. However, that doesn’t matter to me in reading about his life or times, as the writer and humorist’s lifestyle and person still intrigues me even if his stories aren’t on the top on my list. His ingenious quotes and humor still amuse me to this day.
Lynn’s writing is exceptional. Compared against other authors, it’s fairly obvious to me why she is a national best-seller. Once you pick up the book because the synopsis intrigues you, you’ll be captivated and stay because her talent is that good. That’s what happened to me. Her sentence structure, character and plot development, dialogue, and her ability to make your visualize the story is enough to make me as a writer and editor glow and be in awe of her ability. It’s a book I don’t think twice about getting hiccuped on for writing structure, but can actually enjoy as a reader! She’s one of those writers you can get lost in quickly and be entertained, no matter the content.
Her research is pristine (using journals and letters from the characters), seemingly accurate, and she’s very good at tying ends together to create a story and sense of place that presents her characters much redeeming, in fact even, setting records straight for those long lost. Her investigative reporting is an added touch to her books, but with dripping descriptions and details she weaves her uncoverings into chapters that will hold you hostage and compel you to turn without ceasing. She gives us a glimpse easily into life in the early 20th century and creates for us a setting as if we’ve just walked in the front door and it’s unfolding before our eyes.
Into the characters, we are dove deep into their dysfunction and drama – their social, societal, and intimate details all placed on the page with their somewhat even, quite mental, personalities. We are shown the faults and cracks of Twain, possibly his split personas, as well as the malice of her daughter, but yet, also Lynn takes care not to paint Twain as a complete villain or tarnish his name either. I believe her only quest is write a thrilling book that offers as solution to the question why and what if? And it’s very entertaining.
Twain’s End is a dramatic read that delves into the chaos of the life of an important historical icon and reminds us the intriguing lifestyles many in the arts led during this time period. It’s complete with romance, mystery, dark suspicions, mental illness, and family dysfunction and a snapshot of the final few years of Twain’s life.
The occurrences of the life of Isabel as it pertained to Twain only led to silence on a mystery once she left him and he wrote the defaming letter about her, and while Lynn takes a crack at hypothesizing what may have happened, it may never be answered with finality.However, the book was a thrilling peek into the past that gave me a few hours of much needed reading enjoyment this summer.It will have a permanent place on my bookshelf. Anyone who is a fan of dramatic, and even scandalous, historical fiction, and even or biographies, should check this one out!
Twain’s End, Synopsis
by Lynn Cullen
Paperback Publication Date: June 7, 2016
Paperback; 352 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
From the bestselling and highly acclaimed author of the “page-turning tale” (Library Journal, starred review) Mrs. Poe comes a fictionalized imagining of the personal life of America’s most iconic writer: Mark Twain.
In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?
In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen “cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale” (Booklist) about the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909. Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.
Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings, letters, photographs, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End triumphs as “a tender evocation of a vain, complicated man’s twilight years and a last chance at love” (People).
“Reputation-squaring novel. Cullen splashes a surplus of fuel onto her incendiary raw material.” (New York Times Book Review)
“The extraordinary relationship between…Mark Twain, and his longtime secretary Isabel Lyon is wonderfully reimagined in this absorbing novel…[a] fascinating interpretation of this early 20th century literary immortal, distinguished by incisive character portrayals and no-holds-barred scrutiny.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
“Cullen brings a formidable and fascinating novel of thwarted love. Readers will be enthralled by the story.” (RT Book Reviews, four-star review)
“Intelligently drawn…Cullen expertly portrays both Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain… fans of historical fiction and biographies will enjoy.” (Library Journal)
“Twain’s End remains a book that is a joy to read. Ms. Cullen is the Bronte of our day.” (Huffington Post)
“A tender evocation of a vain, complicated man’s twilight years and last chance at love.” (People)
“Twain’s End is a well-researched love story and history…readers will savor this accessible view of the enigmatic Mark Twain.” (Shelf Awareness)
“[Cullen is] a wonderful writer…Twain’s End should be on your reading list.” (Bookreporter.com)
“Cullen has a knack for weaving in small details to create rich fictional portraits of real-life figures.” (Atlanta Magazine)
“A fascinating book about a complicated writer.” (The Missourian)
“We’re riveted as Twain comes alive—faults and all—but in the end we’re captured and captivated by him. Heartbreaking, passionate, profoundly interesting and readable. Cullen has once again jettisoned herself to another time and place and delivered historical fiction fans with an utterly fascinating read.” (New York Times bestseller M.J. Rose)
“Every room radiates withd eliciously calibrated tension and hidden desires in Twain’s End. It is in its psychological truths that the novel succeeds most brilliantly, revealing the inevitable wounds in a relationship between a famous person and an ordinary one, and what happens when the balance of power changes. A riveting read.” (Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CHALICE)
“The breadth of research and faithfulness to the subjects is evident in Twain’s End. With clarity and honesty, Cullen resurrects one of America’s most complicated and well-known writers and his intimates in vivid, fascinating, and sometimes shocking ways. Twain’s End is more than a study in character; it is a cautionary tale of the spoils of fame and power, and those intoxicated by it. Captivating.” (Erika Robuck, bestselling author of HEMINGWAY’S GIRL)
“The utterly fascinating and heartbreaking story of the aging literary lion Mark Twain and his intelligent, beautiful devoted secretary Isabel who loved and understood him… a rich novel which will sweep you into a remarkable world.” (Stephanie Cowell, author of CLAUDE AND CAMILLE)
“Mark Twain’s last decade roars with intrigue and yearning as Lynn Cullen brings our attention to his complicated relationship with Isabel Lyon, his personal secretary who has been long overlooked. A great read for fans of Z and The Paris Wife. Cullen illuminates the darker, outermost corners of Samuel Clemens’s later years, the caged lives of his daughters, his dying wife, and a woman ‘Mark Twain’ was never meant to love.” (Suzanne Rindell, author of THE OTHER TYPIST)
“Twain’s End is an unflinching, clear-eyed view into the last years of one of American’s most beloved authors. Ms. Cullen delves deep and gives us a glimpse into the pain that shaped the mask worn by Samuel Clemens. Brilliant and insightful. I hated to reach the end.” (Susan Crandall, bestselling author of THE FLYING CIRCUS and WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD)
“Lynn Cullen is both a masterful writer and literary detective. Meticulous research and keen curiosity led her to piece together a fascinating account of the last seven years of Mark Twain’s life. Though the story of Isabel and Sam took place over a hundred years ago, its concerns remain with us today: the corrupting nature of power and fame, the corroding legacy of slavery in America, the ways in which childhood wounds continue to cripple us throughout our adult lives, the fact that love is sometimes not enough when it comes to the relationships between women and men. To the public, Twain might have been ‘Known to Everyone, Liked by All,’ but to those closest to him, he was a troubled and difficult man. Cullen shows Mark Twain ‘warts and all,’ yet we—and the utterly sympathetic Isabel Lyon—still love his irascible spirit, a spirit that nearly leaps off the page. In short: Twain’s End is a fabulous read; I loved this book.” (Susan Rebecca White, author of A PLACE AT THE TABLE)
“Twain’s End is an exquisitely nuanced portrayal of the American icon and the woman who dared to love him. With superb attention to detail, and deep understanding and care for her protagonists, Lynn Cullen brings this deliciously complex story to life, delivering everything we expect in a modern masterpiece.” (Anne Girard, author of MADAME PICASSO)
“With Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen has once again proven herself a master of historical fiction. This remarkable book explores the life of Mark Twain as seen through the eyes of the women in his household. As each interacts with the legendary Twain, the reader is allowed glimpses of the man—Samuel Clemens—living behind the well-known persona who rode in on a comet’s coattails and made the entire world laugh. Lynn Cullen is an outstanding writer, and Twain’s End is an exceptional book.” (Raymond Atkins, author of SWEETWATER BLUES)
Lynn Cullen, Biography
Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is the author of The Creation of Eve, named among the best fiction books of 2010 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and as an April 2010 Indie Next selection.
She is also the author of numerous award-winning books for children, including the young adult novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, which was a 2007 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008. Mrs. Poe, a national bestseller, has been named a Target Book Club Pick, an NPR 2013 Great Read, and an Indie Next List selection.
Her newest novel is Twain’s End. She lives in Atlanta surrounded by her large family, and, like Mark Twain, enjoys being bossed around by cats.
*I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.