I absolutely loved everything about this book, starting with the literary references right down to the forbidden romance. Cullen took all the pieces, fact and rumors, about Edgar Allen Poe and the characters around him and wrote a beautiful story that delves into feminism, technological progress, NYC literary society, and so much more. Right away Cullen gives us the setting perfectly, telling us of the NYC smells as horse manure, garbage and urine. This gives us a picture of what NYC was, pushing us into the past. I love when historical fiction adds quaint and factual details such as this.
The characters, based on real life, are strong, opinionated and made me want to jump into a time machine to attend one of their conversaziones. Frances Osgood, the struggling poet that has chosen the wrong man to marry and struggles with this throughout the book. Samuel Osgood, the husband of Frances, who is the master charmer portrait artist, one we would call a player in our time. Virginia Poe, the wife of Edgar Poe, sick and fragile but has a dark side. Edgar Allen Poe, the famous poet/writer, creepy yet extremely intelligent and charming (in his own way). Cullen wrote Edgar with finesse, he comes across with dry humor which he even admits, "I do not joke... I never joke". That spoke to me because I'm a believer that the truth is what makes something so funny. As Dane Cook (I believe it was him) says, "It's funny because it's so true". Poe's personality is so dark with macabre retorts that had me enamored, I think I fell in love with him right along with Frances.
One of my other favorite characters was Mrs. Fuller, even if she was only a minor part. She loves stirring the pot, has definitive views on feminism and is fantastic at defending her fellow females. Feminism plays a large part in this book, the idea of "free love" is brought up a few times and the conversations that play out around that theme are really interesting. One of the central ideas to "free love" is how "marital relations without the consent of the wife amount to rape." How complicated things were back then, suffocating in a marriage that wasn't right. The inequality of it all, something that is really hard to fathom in present times. The Author actually uses the doomed love of Edgar and Frances to show the injustice of the way things used to be. Shouldn't we be able to be with the one you love? Even now, with such changes in marriage, we suffer with the ideas of adultery and bad relationships. Should you stay with someone out of loyalty even if it means we'd be miserable? Doesn't that just make the person we're with suffer just as much if not more? A great quote from the book sums this up beautifully, "Why must women always deny their desires? Why must most men always deny theirs? It is completely unnatural to do so."
This book might seem like a romance, but to me it was so much more. I'd normally run for the hills at the first mushy paragraph... However, this book spoke to my geeky side. Mrs. Poe is chock full of technological progress, like having a fun history lesson; how roads started, NYC indoor plumbing bringing the rats, daggeotypes, the first x-mas trees, etc. I really loved the argument brought up around daggeotypes (develops a portrait by exposing chemicals to light.. Ahem, photography anyone?) this brought up the argument of Fine Art vs. Photography, which interested me quite a bit, being an artist myself. Samuel Osgood, the artist, believed that daggeotypes were a fad that would pass with time. Poe, on the other hand, felt it was a fantastic technology that was truest to the subject. How I would have likes to be a part of these discussions. I really would recommend this book to anyone who loves literature combined with history. Cullen gives us so many literary figures (mentioned or cameo); Walt Whitman, Mr. Audobon, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, even Charles Dickens. It left me star struck and wanting more. I can't wait to pick up another of her books, it left me wanting more.
P.S. - Check out Arianna's review of this book... Lynn Cullen commented on her post commending her for understanding where she was coming from, you have to read it!