A fascinating and intimate novel of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, narrated by the First Lady herself. Mary Todd Lincoln is one of history's most misunderstood and enigmatic women. She was a political strategist, a supporter of emancipation, and a mother who survived the loss of three children and the assassination of her beloved husband. She also ran her family into debt, held séances in the White House, and was committed to an insane asylum - which is where Janis Cooke Newman's debut novel begins. From her room in Bellevue Place, Mary chronicles her tempestuous childhood in a slaveholding Southern family and takes listeners through the years after her husband's death, revealing the ebbs and flows of her passion and depression, her poverty and ridicule, and her ultimate redemption.
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This story is compelling as a possibility of the lives of the Lincolns. It really made me think about the Civil War from a woman's perspective, including the fear and anxiety that must come from having your home and family threatened constantly, as well as the overwhelming grief of losing so many family members in such traumatic ways. I believe historical information contradicts some of the story, particularly how dispassionate and almost loveless Abraham appears towards Mary. The author also omits certain notable aspects of Mary's emotional breakdowns. Even so, I did appreciate the alternative possible explanations of Mary, her motives and her actions, which I think is sorely lacking in a lot of historical reports. The narrator did a great job. BUT (and it's a big one), this is the worst edited story I've ever listened to. A large section from Part 1 is missing (starting just after Eddie passes), jumping to when Willie and Tad are 5/6 years old, This important part suddenly reemerges at the beginning of Part 2, interrupting the story as it is leading to Lincoln's election. This makes it disjointed and hard to follow. Also, at least five times, you hear the narrator say "going back" or "pick up" when she flubs a line. I've never heard such poor editing in a book.
I was very interested in the main subject of this book, Mary Todd Lincoln's confinement to Belleview Hospital for the Insane, which was granted by her son Robert's petition to the court. I wondered if being present at her husband's assassination had driven her mad, and I had heard that much of Robert's motivation was to get his hands on her money.
Newman does a good job of depicting life in the asylum, and, as a reader, I was frustrated by the restrictions put upon Mary. She could not spend a penny, move a foot, have a single visitor, or send a letter without Robert's express permission--a situation that must have been hard on the former first lady. The author takes us back through events in Mary's life that strongly influenced her: the death of her mother and her father's remarriage to an unaffectionate stepmother who sent her off to boarding school; family resistance to her engagement to Lincoln; the death of her sons; newspaper attacks; the assassination; etc. But on the whole, Mary does not come off sympathetically. She's depicted mainly as somewhat of a nymphomaniac; Lincoln complains that her passion is too strong and makes her promise to withhold it, and he is often so repelled by it that he avoids her bed (which of course only makes her more sexually frustrated). Mary later concludes that this suppression is the reason her son Robert is so unaffectionate. In addition, she's a neurotic shopaholic. During the war, when thousands are suffering and dying, she wracks up bills that her husband simply cannot pay, squandering tens of thousands of dollars on jewelry and silver tea services "because they will last." She stashes the goods in the attic and visits them as totems that will keep her husband and sons alive. If that isn't crazy, I don't know what is!
The thing I hated most about the book was the sex scenes. Don't get me wrong: sex can be good, and I don't mind it in most novels, as long as it's appropriate. But I really, REALLY did not want those detailed graphic descriptions of sex between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, both in younger days and their middle age. Some things you just do NOT need to visualize! Newman also details a one-night stand Mary has with a New York escort; whether this has any basis in fact, I do not know, but I could have done without it.
If, like me, you'd like to know more about the subject matter, I'd advise you to skip this one and find a credible biography. It raised a lot of questions for me about Mary's political influence and her confinement that really weren't satisfactorily answered for me here. I'm giving the novel three stars, mainly because it did raise questions, and because the first half or so did keep me engaged.
The reader was fine enough, but there are a number of glitches in this recording--at least six instances where a line is flubbed and repeated. Very annoying!