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Mary: Diary of a Madwoman?

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We were a bit apprehensive – OK dreading – reviewing Janis Cooke Newman’s Mary: A Novel (MacAdam/Cage) when it first arrived at our doorstep. It had everything going against it – not only did it weigh in at three pounds and a hefty 707 pages, it was also a work of historical fiction (read: 50-50 shot of being boring) about Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.

But Newman’s first novel – she also authored the memoir The Russian Word for Snow – turned out to be a pleasant page-turner. And LAist no longer wonders how or why a book about a supposedly off-kilter First Lady was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the First Fiction Category.

Let’s dig up those old history classes and get a few things straight about Mary Todd Lincoln. She came from a large, well-to-do slave-owning Kentucky family; her mother’s death affected 6-year-old Mary greatly; she married poor lawyer Mr. Lincoln against the wishes of her family; she was a notorious shopaholic; three of her four sons died at a young age; her husband, who was probably depressed for most of his adult life, was assassinated right after the end of the Civil War; she was hooked on opiates and séances; and she was committed to Bellevue asylum in Illinois by her oldest and only surviving son.

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The book blends these facts with fiction easily. Cooke seems to channel Mrs. Lincoln, capturing the words and thoughts of a First Lady during her time spent at Bellevue, embellishing the reasons behind the choices in her life. The novel’s prose is so crisp and believable that you start to think that Cooke might have partaken in séances that Mrs. Lincoln favored to get the words just so.

In this excerpt, Mary is badly in debt after her husband’s death, and the merchants in New York and Washington are after her for payment (and really, who among us hasn’t been here):

Seized with a fatal panic, I began to pull out the bills, until the pile of them covered the polished surface of the desk. Once I had every one, I pushed them aside and, took out ink, and began to add up the numbers of my debt. Halfway through, I rose an loosened my dress, and then my corset, but still could not fill my lungs. Forcing myself back to the figures, I fought dizziness and darkness which crowded my vision and altered the numbers on the page. Still, I would not let myself stop until the final bill had been tallied.

The total of my debts was nearly thirty thousand dollars.

In Newman's hands, Mary, who was vilified during her lifetime, is framed as a sympathetic woman who had too much sadness for one person to bear. The chapters where she loses friends and family are heart-wrenching. It's no wonder she captured a case of the crazies.

There was one aspect of Mary that took LAist some getting used to: presidential sex. Reading the prose about the goings on (or not goings on) in the presidential bedroom - especially since we know that Lincoln wasn't much of a looker - seemed a bit off-putting, almost borderline on bodice ripper.

In this passage, Mary can think of only one way to force Honest Abe to marry her against the wishes of her family. She must let him take her virtue:

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Mr. Lincoln took my maidenhood, and there was some pain. But even such rendering - done roughly, for his desire would not let him slow - was incidental, overwhelmed by a sensation both profound and unexpected...And pleasure is precisely what I experienced in the bed above Mr. Speed's store. Although pleasure does not go far enough to describe it.

It's like thinking about your parents doing it. But then once we understood Newman's Mary, it fit perfectly into the context of the story. Mary Todd Lincoln seemed way ahead of her time when it came to sex, politics and, yes, shopping, and she used them when she couldn't control the events that were dealt to her in an often-sad life.