Book Review: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Some books are a crap shoot. Many of the books I have purchased lately have little to do with bestseller lists or word of mouth praise. As a matter of fact, I purchased a handful of books just after Christmas based on:

1. Sale price

2. Cover art

Call me fickle.

Story line clearly plays a role and when these three things align for me, I wind up picking up a book like Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen. Yes, the wife of the infamous Edgar Allan. A dark tale about one of the most mysteriously misunderstood (see that alliteration?) figures in our literary history? Sign me up. Good thing I did because Cullen’s intricate tale painted a portrait I didn’t know existed.

I was surprised that the story isn’t told from the perspective of Virginia Poe, Edgar’s junior by 13 years and also his cousin. Instead, the book is written in the voice of Frances Osgood, an up and coming poet in New York City in the 1840s who dipped her toes in the same literary circles as Poe. Frances attempts to desperately hold together some semblance of family life as her renowned artist husband, Samuel Osgood, travels the world and cavorts with women of ill repute (this guy is definitely a dirty dog). To get her foot in the publishing door to scrape up enough money to get by, Frances attends literary gatherings (“conversaziones”) and jumps at the chance to meet Poe himself. From their first meeting, she is enchanted by his mere presence, his personality, his deep philosophical beliefs about life, death, and love.  He, too, is equally as enraptured despite numerous women falling over his feet to hear his recitation of “The Raven.” None compare to Frances.

As the story wears on, Poe and Osgood become platonic friends as Virginia’s feeble existence is worsened by tuberculosis with each passing day although she finds clever ways to insert herself into their meetings. Throw in Virginia’s overbearing mother (who lives with the couple) and you have all the makings of a very odd relationship between the four with mommy dearest going to nefarious lengths to show her disapproval of Osgood’s closeness to her son-in-law.

Over time, Osgood realizes that Virginia is not what she seems – a frail, childlike martyr – and her frequent calling of Osgood to the house to read her poems becomes strange. Frances shrugs it off but soon recognizes Virginia’s deep-seated hatred for her – or what she thinks is hatred – given her relationship with Edgar. For me, Cullen took time getting here but once she did, the story began to spiral to the point that I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to delve deeper, learn about how Frances’ brushes with injury and near death played into the plot, and how such an ill young woman could have (or could have not) hatched a plan to see to it that Frances and Edgar never saw each other again.

I thought that the covert (which was not really covert) love story that unfolded between Frances and Edgar was interesting although I’m not sure how much liberty with historical events was taken here. Honestly, I’d rather not know because I thought Cullen did a good job of demonstrating their feelings for one another. It was more than a lusty relationship between them and Edgar wrestled with his lukewarm feelings for a woman he married at too young of an age and a woman who challenged him and whom he considered his equal.

Overall, it was a decent book – I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 ravens. It was slow to start for me but it was an easy read.  Real life recognizable names weaved in and out of the story line, like Matthew Brady (famed Civil War photographer) and William Cullen Bryant (American romantic poet), which was a fun touch.

Are you a Poe fan? If so, what’s your favorite Poe tale? What are you currently reading?

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