The thin line between the persona of Mark Twain and the author, Samuel Clemens, is explored in this emotional and revealing fictionalization of the last few years of his life. Isabel Lyon worked as Clemens’ secretary for seven years, her employment abruptly ending just after her wedding, which had been blessed by the author. Curiously, Samuel Clemens and his daughter, Clara, then vilified her in the press, making false accusations and bullying her out of home on their property. Isabel, however, never went on record to exonerate herself. This story imagines what may have occurred between the volatile author and his once-beloved secretary.
There is much history explored in this tale, especially eye-opening for readers not well acquainted with the author’s personal life. Mark Twain, a humorist, was adored in his lifetime by a legion of fans. Samuel Clemens, however, was unapologetically outspoken, cynical and strangely selfish—but as the story played out, his particular demons began to make sense. Isabel, three decades his junior, turned awe and fascination into obsession and in the end showed true loyalty to the man who essentially ruined her life.
As with her novel on Edgar Allan Poe, Cullen has humanized a popular literary figure while telling a compelling story. The timeline jumps around a bit, and readers will need to pay attention to the chapter headings, which include place names and dates, to mentally arrange the series of events. Readers should find this novel an intriguing and character-driven retelling of a man that many still blindly revere solely as the fictional Mark Twain, and not the real man behind the pen name.