Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: Twain's End by Lynn Cullen

Publisher: Gallery Books
Paperback Pub. Date: June 7th, 2016
Pages: 368

Genre: Historical Fiction / Biographical 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 reimagines 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 and letters, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End explores this real-life tale of doomed love.

What Did I Think About the Story?

After reading and LOVING Lynn Cullen's previous novel, Mrs. Poe, I knew I had added yet another author to the list of those that I would be keeping an eye on and reading whenever they came out with a new novel and I could my hands on a copy. Imagine my happiness when the author herself offered to send me a copy for review. Ah, one of the best perks of being a book blogger! Not knowing very much about Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, other than the standard stuff every reader know about his famous books, I wasn't sure what to expect other than a well written book that brought to life another famous man from history through the eyes of a woman who knew him well. Were my expectations met? Oh, boy, yes they were!

The first thing I have to note is just how well Cullen brings her characters to life. Every aspect of their lives, from their general appearance to their temperament to the smallest tick or habit, is presented so clearly that it was like the characters were standing right in front of me. Now, this wasn't always a positive aspect given the actions and attitudes of some of these characters (more to come on that in a second), however no matter how I feel personally about a character I always prefer to have them brought to live by an author than to be left flat and boring.

Now, I have to talk about Mr. Sam Clemens/Mark Twain. As much as I tried to like this man who wrote such endearing stories and brought so much joy and humor to his audience, I just found him to be a terrible person. Some of this might be due to the fact that I really liked Isabel and he treated her terribly, but beyond that I just felt he was such a cruel, dismissive, hypocritical person towards those that were closest to him and that he should have cared about the most. He expected to be the center of attention wherever he went and belittled or diminished those that tried to step out of  his long, looming shadow or did anything that he determined was not what they should say or do. He was incredibly cruel at times and seemed to care very little for the feelings of his wife, daughters, or Isabel and yet somehow these women still adored him and longed for his attentions. I just can't figure that out! And while I do now understand that he had a difficult childhood and it was quite an appealing transition from a poor boy with unloving parents to the most adored man in America, I still don't think the actions he took to keep the world thinking he, as Mark Twain, was this perfect man justified the viciousness and vengefulness he directed towards those that bruised his pride or didn't follow along with his rules.

Other than Sam Clemens I really enjoyed the other characters and the perspectives they brought to the table, even if I wasn't a huge fan of how conniving they were (I'm looking at you, Clara!). I absolutely adored Isabel as the strong, intelligent, forthright woman she was, even if I didn't understand why she put up with either Samuel or Clara Clemens for as long as she did, and her haughty mother made me love her even as I thought she was slightly ridiculous for clinging to her entitled past and outdated concepts. I really wish more time and attention was given to Isabel's husband, Ralph Ashcroft, as he seemed like a good man who wasn't afraid to stand up for Isabel against the Clemens camp as they sought to ruin her reputation and I would have enjoyed seeing his character given more time to shine. In a world where I can rewrite history I very much would have liked Isabel to end up with him sooner and to have lived a happy and healthy life far away from Samuel Clemens. Alas, being that this is based on real people and events, the story is dominated by a man that refuses to let anyone else be the focus of attention, even in a book mainly from the point of view of his secretary!

Twain's End is a wonderful character-driven novel that brings to live the man, the myth, the legend who became Mark Twain and the people who orbited around him. This entire world is presented quite vividly, warts, roses, and all, and I absolutely loved my time spent between these pages even as I sometimes grew frustrated at the actions within. This novel has cemented my love of Lynn Cullen's ability to bring historical people to life in a realistic and sometimes heartbreaking way, and I cannot wait to see who she focuses on next!    

What Did I Think About the Cover?

I can easily see the woman on the front as a young Isabel, a pretty and determined woman not afraid to stare down anyone, even a man as volatile as Clemens. I like that they put the concentration on Isabel as this is as much her story (if not more!) as the man that dominated her life.

My Rating: 4.0/5.0

Thank you to author Lynn Cullen's for providing me with a free copy of Twain's End in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. To find out more about the novel, including other reviews and links to where you can purchase a copy, see Goodreads. You can also learn more about the book and it's author on Lynn Cullen's website.


  1. Thank you for the review. I enjoyed it and will look for that author. I read a book that recently (can't remember the name) that changed my opinion of Thomas A. Edison. He was very mean spirited and drove his workers to try everything even if there was no chance for it to succeed.

  2. Wonderful review! I agree, the characters were vividly brought to life and thought Twain's End was a fantastic historical fiction novel all around.