Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review - The Emancipator's Wife: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln by Barbara Hambly

Title: The Emancipator's Wife: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln
Author: Barbara Hambly
Year: 2005
Page: 624
Genre: Fiction - Historical

FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Summary (from
As a girl growing up in Kentucky, she lived a sheltered, privileged life filled with picnics and plantation balls. Vivacious, impulsive, and intoxicated by politics, she is a Todd of Lexington, an aristocratic family whose ancestors defeated the British. But no one knows her secret fears and anxieties. Although she is courted by the most eligible suitors in the land, including future senator Stephen Douglas, it is a gangly lawyer from Illinois who captures her heart. After a stormy courtship and a broken engagement, Abraham Lincoln will marry twenty-four-year-old Mary Todd and give her a ring inscribed with the words “Love Is Eternal.”

But their happiness won’t last nearly so long. Their first child will be born under the gathering clouds of a civil war, and three more follow. As Lincoln’s star rises, the pleasure-loving Mary learns, often the hard way, the rules of being a politician’s wife. But by the time the fiery storm of war passes, tragedy will have claimed two sons, scandal will shadow her days as First Lady, and an assassin’s bullet will take Lincoln himself, leaving Mary alone and all but forgotten by the nation that owed her husband its survival.

Yet it is in the years to come that Mary Todd Lincoln will truly come into her own. In public, she will fight to preserve Lincoln’s memory even as she battles a bitterly contested insanity trial. In private, she will struggle with depression and addiction as she endures the betrayals–both real and imagined–of family and friends.

With a gifted novelist’s imagination and a historian’s eye for detail, Barbara Hambly tells a story of astonishing scope, richly peopled with real-life characters and their fictional counterparts, a tour-de-force tale of power, politics, and the role of women in nineteenth- century America. The result is a Mary Todd Lincoln few have seen and none will forget–the fascinating, controversial woman of whom her husband could say: “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl and I fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out”–Mary Todd, the woman who loved Abraham Lincoln.

First Sentence:
Encountering Mary Todd Lincoln was the nicest thing that happened to John Wilamet on his first day in the Promised Land.

My Thoughts:

Why this book?
  • Library book club February pick. Not something I'd normally choose for sure.
First thought:
  • I learned something new, but boy, was it a long book (600+ pages). Would be better if it was shorter!
Cover Art:
  • Not bad. Gave the impression that it is a historical novel. Fits the book. Just not very exciting...
  • It is not something that would have caught my attention...
  • Pretty easy to read, but some passages were overly descriptive for my last. I think it could have been a bit shorter if it was edited tighter.
  • It did made me want to find out what happened, however, the story went back and forth A LOT between Mary's childhood/teenage/younger years, and later years. It got rather confusing sometime. 
  • I wish it was written in a more linear fashion so I could read to find out what happened next, rather than "this happened now... let's go back x number of years... then 357 pages later we'd explained what happened in the first chapter, but before that we needed to go back 5 more years first"
  • Some parts also seemed repetitive, and I wasn't sure about some of the "dreams" Mary had... 
  • I liked Mary when she was a young girl - she was independent and had her own ideas (though during the book club discussion, some thought she was manipulative and a chronic liar). I didn't like her after she married Lincoln. I felt bad for her though after he died
  • There were lots of other characters (Mary had lots of siblings and half siblings, and other rich friends and "beaus") and I wish the book included a family tree as it was difficult to remember everyone's names, and some had similar names!
  • While the story was supposedly quite true to historical records, one of the minor but important character, John, who was a freed slave, was fictional. While I think his own story may have been interesting, his side story made the story longer... 
  • Since I didn't grow up in the US, I didn't know a lot about Lincoln (and nothing about Mary Todd). The portrayal of Lincoln was negative at times which surprised me a little, but I suppose if you knew more about his history it shouldn't come as a surprise (e.g. I didn't know he came from "backward" country with no etiquette, was considered odd looking etc.)
  • Mary and Licoln's oldest son Robert also was not very likable... in fact many characters weren't very likable... but you have to agree that Mary Todd went through a lot and led a rather tragic life. Had she lived in modern society now, she probably would have lived a very different life
  • A rather predictable or expected ending I guess... since this book pretty much covered Mary Todd's whole life, I guess it was acceptable.
  • I was glad I didn't live in that era! But I didn't feel overly emotional while reading it. 
What I Learned:
  • I learned quite a bit about Mary Todd, Lincoln, and what life was like back then. Since I am not a big history fan, this is the best way for me to learn more about the US history, so I am glad I read it, just wish it was a bit more concise.
  • All but one from the book club liked the book - the person who didn't like it thought it was a bit too long (I guess I liked it okay, but don't dislike it). For the first time since I'd joined last January, this was the first time we had spent the WHOLE HOUR discussing this book, and didn't get side tracked! Interestingly, a lot of people thought she was crazy, whereas I didn't think she was as crazy as I was led to think - she definitely had some mental issues (bi-polar, hoarding etc) but I don't know if crazy was the right word to describe her. 
Read this Author again?
  • I think it'd depend on the topic, and the length of the book :) I am not scared of big books, but sometimes I think less is more... (unless they are those books I wish I can never finish because they are so good that I want to keep reading about them forever!)


I find myself looking forward to the end of my term as much as any of the poor slaves looked forward to Freedom (p53)

Could you marry a man who would stake his life - and your happiness - on a letter written in anger, that should simply have been put on the fire? (p90)

Overall Rating: 3 Stars - It's Okay. Glad I learned something, but could be better.

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an ok book. Anna and I are listing your review on the War Through the Generations Book reviews page for the current challenge about the U.S. Civil War. If you plan on reading others in this category, feel free to sign up as a participant later in the year.