This review comes via my latest request from NetGalley, where you can obtain free advance copies of forthcoming and recently released books for review purposes. Mrs. Poe was written by Lynn Cullen, whose previous works include Reign of Madness and The Creation of Eve. In its prerelease description, Amazon includes this book in Historical Literature and Fiction and Historical Romance. Mrs. Poe is published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., and will be available on 1 October 2013.
A writer and his demons. A woman and her desires. A wife and her revenge . . .
1845: New York City is a sprawling warren of gaslit streets and crowded avenues, bustling with new immigrants and old money, optimism and opportunity, poverty and crime. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is all the rage—the success of which a struggling poet like Frances Osgood can only dream. As a mother trying to support two young children after her husband’s cruel betrayal, Frances jumps at the chance to meet the illustrious Mr. Poe at a small literary gathering, if only to help her fledgling career. Although not a great fan of Poe’s writing, she is nonetheless overwhelmed by his magnetic presence— and the surprising revelation that he admires her work.
Romance is not my usual reading genre, although I do enjoy historical fiction. But a very good friend of mine loves Poe’s works, and when I saw this novel on NetGalley, I had to request it.
The book’s cast is drawn from real life—the now-nearly-mythical Edgar Allan Poe, his consumptive wife, Virginia, poet Frances “Fanny” Osgood, and others. The story centers on the meeting between Edgar Allen Poe and Frances Osgood and the relationship that develops. Most scholars believe the two were no more than friends, although a few suggest the possibility of an affair. Cullen has taken this “What If” possibility as the focus of her novel.
Cullen presents a believable New York of the 1840s. Depending on your preferred level of detail in historical fiction, you may or may not feel bogged down by the descriptions. Similarly, the book is populated by many of the leading figures of the literary world of the day—even of a later day. I must admit it seems a stretch that 13-year-old Louisa May Alcott of Massachusetts would be visiting the salons of New York City, even with her family’s association with well-known writers of the time.
Cullen has drawn a rounded character in Frances Osgood, who, along with several other women in the story, comes across as fully human, with all the drives, ambitions, and desires of men, even though society restricts her rights and dictates that these behaviors are not those of “proper” women. Whether the portrayal of Osgood is historically correct or not, the reader will see the difficulties faced by a nineteenth-century woman struggling to support her family when the husband has abandoned this responsibility.
Frankly, a novel centered on Edgar Allen Poe must contain elements of the mystery, darkness, and suspense that he mastered in his writings. And I respect the bravery of any modern writer who takes up that challenge. I couldn’t do it. Whether Cullen has succeeded in this attempt lies squarely in a reader’s opinion. I suspect those most familiar with Poe’s work are those who would say Cullen misses the mark. Others, though, less interested in literary comparisons, would be more likely to enjoy these elements of the story.
I noticed a few anachronisms, at least in the Advance Reader Copy. Since they might be removed in the final version, I won’t include them here. Even if they remain in the final copy, I doubt many readers will even realize they exist. They shouldn’t affect most people’s reading of the story.
So who might enjoy this book? I would suggest fans of historical romance with a taste of mystery and suspense and fans of Poe who wouldn’t make judgmental comparisons between the literary world of Poe’s day and ours are the best candidates. The book can be ordered now and is due for release on 1 October 2013.