Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Mary: A Novel.
The life of Mary Todd Lincoln is the focus of this novel by Janis Cooke Newman. The novel, told from Mary's perspective, begins with her confinement to Bellevue asylum, where her emotionally repressed oldest son had her committed in the 1870s. At Bellevue, Mary tries to make the best of her situation, despite her protests that she is not a lunatic. Compelled to convince her son of her sanity, she begins to write down the story of her life. From that point on, the novel interweaves her present situation at Bellevue and the events that occur there with everything in Mary's past that led her to this point. While the novel's girth may be off-putting, it is an engrossing and smoothly-paced story.
Mary Todd recalls her Kentucky childhood - her struggle to find affection among her spoiled older sisters, her distracted mother, her unemotional father, and her bratty younger siblings. When Mary's mother dies, it hits her very hard. From that point on, Mary starts to believe in the spirit world, trying desperately to bring her mother back to her from the dead. This is a theme that will follow Mary throughout her life. Her father eventually remarries a snooty, disapproving woman who shuns Mary from her love. The only person who is there for her is Mammy Sally, the old slave that becomes like a surrogate mother to Mary.
As a young woman, Mary removes herself from her father's household and moves in with her eldest sister. Eventually, her sister's social circles bring Abraham Lincoln into Mary's life. Both captivated and repulsed by him, she is quickly moved by his respectfulness and intellect, even if he lacks manners and chivalry. Determined to have him, Mary seeks out ways to win his love despite her sister's attempts to keep them apart.
Of course, at this point, many people are familiar with the Lincolns' story. They marry. Mary bears four sons, and only the oldest one lives past childhood. This book covers all those events that shaped Mary's life: how the war pitted the Todds against the Lincolns, the grief she must bear with each of her sons' deaths, the horror of witnessing her husband's assassination, her best friend's betrayal. Her life is rocked by scandal, infidelity, tragedy, poverty, and grief. And throughout it all, Mary's most fervent hope is to be loved completely. Her lack of this love that she craves eventually leads her to delusions and schizophrenic episodes, which forces her son to put her in the mental institution. It seems that Mary is most sane within its walls, rather than outside of them.
Much of this novel is based on fact, but at times, it is hard to separate the fact from fiction. Regardless, this is a fascinating, eloquent novel about a widely misunderstood woman. Reading this book compelled me to do some research about Mary Todd Lincoln's life to learn more about her. I cannot recommend Mary: A Novel more highly.