Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
Twain's End is a love story about Isabel Lyon and the man she served as private secretary for most of the last eight years of his life, Samuel Clemens, known to the world by his pen name, Mark Twain. From the first chapter, introduced by a pair of 1908 newspaper clippings, one titled "New York Loses Mark Twain," it's clear the story will not end happily. Though the clipping refers to his move from New York to Connecticut rather than his death, Clemens was nearing his end. Born in November of 1835, the month in which Halley's comet had last appeared, Clemens believed he would "go out with it." The comet was due to return in 1910.
The novel takes on the mystery of Lyon's cataclysmic fall from grace in 1909. Clemens fired her the month after she married one of his business associates. He then publicly and viciously denounced her as "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction," an astonishingly broad litany of complaints against someone he had trusted. Lyon had handled financial matters for him, overseen the building of his Connecticut home, taken dictation for his autobiography, and moved into a room in his home after his wife's death.
Circling back to 1889, when the two first met over a card game, Twain's End tells an emotionally convincing story that takes much of its authority from the research, both extensive and deep, behind it. Sympathetic to both central characters, it portrays Clemens as a man difficult to live with, plagued by self-doubt, short-tempered with the people he most loves. One gets the feeling that this complex and remarkable man, who created an alternative persona which allowed him to both reveal and conceal the unvarnished truth about himself, would both admire and denounce Cullen's novel. (2015, 342 pages, including an Author's Note regarding her sources)
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