(4.5 stars) There's always been something about Mary Todd that history has chosen to dislike or take issue with. She was a shrew, difficult to live with, out of control, insane, made Lincoln's life a living hell, unlovable...you name it, it has been said. A good bit of blame may fall on William Herndon and Jesse Welk's biography of Lincoln published in 1889, which reflected Herndon's longtime negative feelings about Mary Todd. From there, many other historians have run with it.
Well, thank you, Louis Bayard, for this kinder, gentler, more impartial look at Mary Todd. Bayard's novel is a snapshot in time, from 1839 to 1842, when Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, met Lincoln, who was just beginning to involve himself in politics, became engaged to him in 1840, disengaged in 1841, and reengaged and married in 1842. Mary was recognized in Springfield society as lively, quick-witted, politically savvy and pretty. She became the "Belle of Springfield", courted by many , including Stephen Douglas, and other influential figures such as Webb and Trumbull.
These are known facts. It's the beautiful filling in of details of their courtship that makes this book so engaging. Details about Mary, of course, as half the novel is written from her POV, but also details about Joshua Speed, whose POV is found in alternating sections of the novel. Speed was Lincoln's bosum buddy, close friend and bedmate from 1837 until the end of 1840. By "bedmate" one understands that they shared a bed as a sleeping arrangement common to that time. However, their extremely close friendship paired with this sleeping arrangement have led many to speculate that theirs was a romantic relationship and that Lincoln may have been bisexual.
Bayard does not declare one way or the other, although he left subtle hints throughout the story, mostly about Speed. Instead he sticks closely to the known facts and presents us with a touching and tasteful portrayal of a great "bromance", which may or may not have been sexual, whether overt or latent. In the grand scheme of things, whose business is it but that of those most concerned, i.e., Speed, Lincoln and Mary?
But it is my business to enjoy a well-written historical novel and this is that. It's also well researched and adheres closely to the historical record. It's so well researched that when Lincoln says to Mary on p. 360 of this story, "I once told you we were the two brokenest birds I knew...What I didn't see was how well our pieces might still fit together for all that," I went searching the internet, hoping it was based on a real quote, since so many other of the interactions here were historically documented. No such luck, but then I'm not a first-class researcher by any means.
Whatever the case may be, one comes away from the reading of this knowing it is a love story, or rather two love stories. Joshua Speed and Lincoln shared a very close connection and an obvious love for each other, no matter what interpretation you choose to give this love. And Lincoln and Mary Todd also had a very close connection, based on their mutual interest in politics and the spark of the meeting of minds. How romantic and passionate this connection was again is up to the reader or researcher.
The main story ends with Mary Todd and Lincoln's wedding, but the epilogue covers two periods beyond that: (1) An 1860 reunion of Speed and Lincoln and their wives as told from Speed's POV, and (2) An 1882 memory from Mary's POV. Both were unbelievably touching and actually choked me up.
This was a lovely story. I found it to be beautifully written and believable. I'm grateful to Bayard for giving Mary back some of her dignity, grace, and good name. There has been much mud slung at her for too long. After all, just consider this: She suffered from migraines and perhaps even depression. She was married to a man who suffered bouts of severe depression and who was often absent during their married life. She lost her son Edward in 1850 at three years of age and then her son Willie in 1862 when he was eleven. All this while Civil War divided the country. Her beloved husband was assassinated in 1865. It would take an exceptionally strong and emotionally stable person to withstand all those blows and not become emotionally troubled.
As I look back over what I have written so far (and it is probably too much), I see that I've given the impression that this is merely a story about Mary and Speed. Well, of course it is because everything is from their POV and not that of Lincoln. But it is also a touching look at Lincoln as a struggling lawyer and budding politician. A somewhat socially awkward man, self taught, from a rough background, needing help in learning the social graces and even grooming and sartorial advice.
All in all, this was a great take on three historical characters, one beloved of most, one maligned by most, and one probably unknown to most.