I got my copy of the Historical Novels Review today. It’s a great publication for readers and writers of historical fiction, and in case you’re new to this blog, I contribute some reviews to it. So without further ado, here are three of my reviews from the November 2006 issue: Mary by Janis Cooke Newman (about Mary Tood Lincoln), Gatsby’s Girl by Caroline Preston (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old flame), and Loving Will Shakespeare by Carolyn Meyer (Anne Hathaway). I enjoyed each of them very much.
Mary: A Novel
Janis Cooke Newman
Committed to the Bellevue Place Sanitarium by her eldest son in 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln begins to write the story of her life in order to pass her sleepless nights and to keep herself sane—and also to gain the love of her cold-natured son. As Mary reflects upon her past, she also makes new acquaintances in the present, notably that of Minnie Judd, a fellow sanitarium inmate.
Minnie is starving herself in order to win the love of her indifferent husband, and Mary soon recognizes a kindred spirit in the young woman, for Mary’s life has also been an elusive quest for love, thwarted sometimes by death, sometimes by the frigidity of those whose affections she seeks to gain. Minnie’s quest, however, is doomed to defeat, while Mary’s ultimately ends in self-discovery.
Mary, however, is far more than just an account of a woman’s search for love. The novel is also a story of the Lincoln marriage, a mutually loving one marked in turn by defeat and triumph, by shared happiness and shared tragedy. Both Lincoln and Mary are vividly drawn characters, but Mary, as the center of the novel, is inevitably the more so. Her charm and wit are present throughout this book, but her faults—her temper, her extravagance, even on one occasion her infidelity—are amply on display. The novel is also, of course, one of a nation divided by civil war, and this gives rise to some memorable scenes, particularly a postwar visit to Richmond where the Lincolns get very different receptions from black Southerners and from white Southerners.
Moving and with an almost palpable compassion for its subject, yet clear-eyed and even humorous at times, this is a book I will be re-reading.
Gatsby’s Girl: A Novel
In 1915, F. Scott Fitzgerald met a society girl, Ginevra King, with whom he had a brief romance before she lost interest in him. Gatsby’s Girl, with a Ginevra Perry as the heroine, is loosely based on this episode in Fitzgerald’s life; the author, as she explains in a detailed, informative historical note, has purposely altered characters and events.
Dazzled by a handsome aviator-in-training at a party, fickle Ginevra wastes no time in ridding herself of Fitzgerald, a “silly college boy” with a pronounced taste for highballs who “’writes,’ plays dress-up, and is flunking geometry.” Five years later, Ginevra, married and a mother, realizes that her spurned suitor has become famous and that a female character in his new novel bears a distinct resemblance to herself. From that point on, Ginevra’s and Fitzgerald’s lives will occasionally intersect and parallel each other, with sometimes surprising results.
With Fitzgerald and Ginevra’s romance over, I wondered at first whether Ginevra, the narrator, was going to be able to carry the rest of Gatsby’s Girl by herself. I needn’t have worried, however, for Ginevra turns out to be more than simply a shallow debutante. As she faces an unhappy marriage, a mentally ill child, and the consequences of her own recklessness with increasing maturity, sensitivity, and self-awareness, she gains the reader’s respect. Gatsby’s Girl is an engaging and absorbing novel in which the heroine proves wrong her old boyfriend’s declaration, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Loving Will Shakespeare
Just before the plague returns to England, seven-year-old Agnes (Anne) Hathaway and her family are invited to a christening by friends: John and Mary Shakespeare, who have just had a son, William. From that point on, Anne’s and Will’s lives will constantly intersect, even when the pair are miles apart.
Despite the title, this appealing novel is not so much the story of Anne and Will’s courtship and marriage as it is of Anne’s coming of age, though the budding playwright is never very far offstage and the love story does assume prominence in the latter part of the book. Growing up as a yeoman farmer’s daughter, Anne, the narrator, is an ordinary girl but by no means a dull one. She must cope with her difficult stepmother and half-sister, the temptations posed by men, the deaths of loved ones, worries over friends who choose to practice Catholicism, and her increasing fear of spinsterhood, and she does so with resourcefulness and good humor. All of this plays out against the vividly rendered backdrop of life in Elizabethan England: the once-in-a-lifetime excitement of a royal progress, the annual May Day and Yuletide feasts, the periodic visitations of plague and sweating sickness, the daily business of running a farm. These elements make this an engrossing story, one that should appeal to adults as well as to the teens for whom it is intended. Ages 12 and up.