Twain's End (Cullen)

Twain's End 
Lynn Cullen, 2015
Gallery Books
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781476758961

A fictionalized imagining of the personal life of America’s most iconic writer: Mark Twain.

In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both.

He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction." Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family.

How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?

In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen "cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale" (Booklist) about the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909.

Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.

Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings, letters, photographs, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End triumphs as "a tender evocation of a vain, complicated man’s twilight years and a last chance at love" (People). (Summary from the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 11, 1955
Where—Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA
Education—B.A., Indiana University
Currently—lives in Atlanta, Georgia

Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the fifth girl in a family of seven children. She learned to love history combined with traveling while visiting historic sites across the U.S. on annual family camping trips.

Lynn attended Indiana University in Bloomington and Fort Wayne, and took writing classes with Tom McHaney at Georgia State. She wrote children’s books as her three daughters were growing up, while working in a pediatric office and, later, at Emory University on the editorial staff of a psychoanalytic journal.

While her camping expeditions across the States have become fact-finding missions across Europe, she still loves digging into the past. She does not miss, however, sleeping in musty sleeping bags. Or eating canned fruit cocktail. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband, their dog, and two unscrupulous cats.

Lynn is the author of the 2010 novel, The Creation of Eve, which was named among the best fiction books of the year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was an April 2010 Indie Next selection.

Her 2011 novel, Reign of Madness, about Juana the Mad, daughter of the Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, was chosen as a Best of the South selection by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and was a 2012 Townsend Prize finalist.

Her 2013 novel, Mrs. Poe, examines the fall of Edgar Allan Poe through the eyes of poet Francis Osgood.

Twain's End, published in 2015, explores the tangled relationship among Mark Twain, his secretary Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager Ralph Ashcroft.

Lynn is also the author of numerous award-winning books for children, including the 2007 young adult novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, which was a Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008. (From the author's website.)

Be sure to check out Lynn Cullen's essay on how she and a group of women formed their book club some 25 years ago. She was a guest on the Booking Mama blog.

Book Reviews
A tender evocation of a vain, complicated man's twilight years and last chance at love.

Twain’s End remains a book that is a joy to read. Ms. Cullen is the Bronte of our day.
Huffington Post

Cullen has a knack for weaving in small details to create rich fictional portraits of real-life figures.
Atlanta Magazine

A fascinating book about a complicated writer.

(Starred review.) The extraordinary relationship between the popular, complicated author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, and his longtime secretary Isabel Lyon is wonderfully reimagined in this absorbing novel.... [A] fascinating interpretation of this early 20th-century literary immortal, distinguished by incisive character portrayals and no-holds-barred scrutiny.
Publishers Weekly

Intelligently drawn…Cullen expertly portrays both Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain… fans of historical fiction and biographies will enjoy.
Library Journal

Cullen portrays the author as a Jekyll-and-Hyde character.... Because Cullen succeeds in portraying Clemens as so unsympathetic, Isabel's devotion becomes a problem for the novel. She comes across as star-struck.... A more nuanced character would have strengthened this sad story of futile, desperate love.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Samuel Clemens often talks about his dual personalities—Sam Clemens and Mark Twain—occasionally saying he wishes to be rid of the latter or even that he hates him. How much do you believe an author’s life is caught up in their identity as a writer? Do you think Sam Clemens uses Mark Twain as an excuse for his behavior, or do you think his fame and renown as Twain fuel the behavior?

2. Samuel Clemens, Clara, and others tell Isabel that Sam is completely dependent on her. Do you believe his affection for her stems in large part from that dependency?

3. Do you think Sam’s attraction to women stems from their beauty and youth, or do you think that other factors, like their status of subservience to him, play a role? Consider the invalid Olivia, or Isabel, whose fortune was gone and financial need great. Do you suppose a need for power and status fueled his passions? How much of his childhood and background plays a role, if at all, in his psychology?

4. Do you think that Sam would have married Isabel on his return from England if the reporter’s question concerning marriage rumors had not been denied? Do you believe Sam ever had intentions of marrying Isabel, or was he too conscious of his reputation?

5. Why do you think Mrs. Clemens speaks so candidly with Isabel about Sam’s roving eye without admonishing Isabel for her flirtation? Why do you imagine she tells her about his propensity to break hearts and hurt people that are close to him? How much of this is said out of kindness, and how much of it is a warning? Do you think she spoke so openly with her husband’s previous interests?

6. How do you explain Isabel’s passion for Sam despite her knowledge of his philandering, his status as a married man, and her role in his family? Do you think she ought to have left her role as his secretary? How soon should she have left her position for her life to have taken a different trajectory? How do you think it would have turned out differently?

7. Thinking of her daughter singing before a crowd with her husband in attendance, Olivia Clemens feels troubled, as she believed “Clara hadn’t a chance. No one did, really, against Mark Twain. Not even Youth himself.” What do you think of Mrs. Clemens’s attitude toward the power of her husband’s alter ego? Do you think she means to say that no one can compete with the popularity of Mark Twain, or is she getting at something more?

8. What do you make of Olivia Clemens’s situation? How would you characterize her relationship with Sam? Is her husband truly the cause of her illness? If so, why has she persisted in living with him and tolerating his actions?

9. The story of the young Sam discovering Jennie and his father together sheds light on Sam’s sense of guilt, but in what other insights does it offer on his personality? On his understanding of himself?

10. What do you think is the largest draw for Isabel: Mr. Clemens’s wit, charm, intellect, status, or his unavailability? Do you think their closeness sealed her affection and she would have been equally as passionate had Sam been less famous or even not famous at all?

11. Why do you think the author chose to write the final chapter from the perspective of Mrs. Lyon instead of Isabel?

12. How much did you know about Samuel Clemens’s life before reading this book? How has your reading of Twain’s End impacted your perception of the man? Of Mark Twain and his books?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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