One of the things that I’ve caught on from working in a bookstore are the various trends in books and what’s becoming popular in certain genres. It’s a lot more prevalent in YA fiction (although that’s where my primary focus lies), but even in straight adult fiction, I’ve noticed certain trends. For example, in historical fiction, there’s a trend popping up of “fictionalized historical romances of famous men and the women who loved them.” It started with Loving Frank, and The Paris Wife is pretty much the breakout title of that type. (Note: I haven’t read any of these either, but I have my own reasons.)
Mrs. Poe is the latest in this crop, and I will admit to being more interested in this than any of the above mentioned titles. Edgar Allan Poe is what I cut my horror teeth on in eighth grade, and like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by his tragic life and even stranger death. Plus, you get into the scandal that Rufus Griswold created, and just the sheer influence Poe has had in culture (how many writers have a mysterious Toaster that no one’s figured out the identity yet?), you can see why a dark, gothic exploration of a woman who was infatuated with Poe would have been really interesting.
The romance in this reads like a fifteen year old Goth reading all of Poe for the first time, and ranting about how nobody really understands Edgar Allan Poe and no one appreciated him at the time and he’s just so tragic and misunderstood. This completely ignores and waves away Poe’s personal faults and pins them on other people, mainly on his wife and his mother-in-law. For as tragic as Poe’s life was, dude was messed-up; he was an alcoholic gambler who died under really suspicious circumstances. And yes, the scandals involving Rufus Griswold and Elizabeth Ellet did tarnish Poe’s (and Frances Osgood’s) reputation, but he wasn’t the poor little lost puppy who got kicked his entire life.
The characterization is terrible. Frances Osgood reads like a clingy snob who can’t stand any other women getting close to “my Edgar” and how she’s the only person who can understand him. (After only knowing each other for roughly six months.) I understand that this a fictionalization of the events, but this is more of Alternate Character Interpretation on the far end of the realism spectrum. I’m not as familiar with Osgood or her work, but from what I’ve read of her life, I really don’t think she would have acted in this way, even in private. (Also, I should point out that after having read up on Frances Osgood, I really don’t like that Cullen forces her to be a struggling writer who wants to be taken “seriously.” No. Just no.)
And speaking of Alternate Character Interpretation, Virginia Poe and her mother. *sharp breath* I really don’t like how Virginia Poe is portrayed at all. In this book, she is a childish, flighty woman who only exists, in the end, to be pitied for “getting in over her head” and again, not understanding how deep and complex and omg how wonderful Poe is. No. This is lazy, lazy characterization that takes a stereotypical view of the “other woman” and making her petty not only undermines the actual historical personage, but is completely insulting to their actual relationship. I hated the last minute revelation that Mrs. Clemm is the one trying to kill Osgood, because of incredibly trite and lazy reasons. There is a really interesting scandal in the historical record that gets entirely discarded and only noted at towards the very end of the book. This could have been a complex exploration of a love triangle without the women hating on one another, especially in a time period where social mores were so much stricter and different than what we know of today, and why was Virginia Poe so accepting of this friendship between her husband and Osgood. And Cullen goes for the laziest exploration that has been told time and time again. No. The premise in this book is predictable, stereotypical and fairly insulting.
And Poe himself. I hate to say that he is the best written character in the book, but I think it’s largely because of the rose-tinted glasses Cullen forces on Osgood. And I hate it, because it completely ignores all of his flaws as a human being. There’s two mentions of the drinking, in the context of “Oh, Frances, he’s never touched alcohol when he’s around you.” To go back on the above characterization of Mrs. Clemm, the darker aspects of Poe’s life are largely blamed on her essentially gaslighting Poe into thinking he’s depressed and insane. No, uh-uh. Fuck that. As I said at the very beginning, this is someone looking at Poe’s life, not fully comprehending the circumstances, and going “Oh, he’s just a tortured little puppy who just gets how dark the world is and we need to cuddle him.” If there had been one scene of Poe getting drunk on his own terms or something that explored Poe’s darkness without the external influence, I don’t think I would have been as angry with this.
Also not helping is the ending. She gives Osgood and Poe a happy ending that again, completely disregards the historical record. It ends with Virginia’s death and Poe learning that Osgood’s new child is his. And I don’t want to say that “They should suffer for the sins of their affair!” but. The fact that what happens to Osgood and Poe is regulated to an author’s note, with no foreshadowing or consequences in the text of the book is –I hate to sound like a broken record, insulting to the historical record. (Oh, and Cullen’s theory that “Ulalume” is really about the aforementioned illegitimate child who would die four months later feels like she picked it off an undergraduate lit major’s paper—with the said paper being written based on a cursory glance on Wikipedia.)
OH, plus Cullen does one of the biggest pet peeves that I have with historical novels. I knew going in that this was going to center around the New York City literary circles in 1845, so that was going to have the Who’s Who of the emerging American literary canon. Except Cullen brings in every historical character by doing the “Why, hello *insert historical person*! How is your *insert famous work here* coming along?” There’s a cameo by Nathanial Hawthorne, and the line said to him is literally “Not now, Hawthorne! I’ll read your draft of The Scarlet-whatever soon.” (pg. 120 in the ARC) At which point, I wanted to reach through the book and backhand the author because NO. (The ‘graham cracker’ line is so much worse and awful.) It’s not clever, you’re not funny, and it takes a really skilled writer to pull it off exceptionally well. For example, look at current Doctor Who which uses this joke a lot—except, half the time, the historical person in question is fairly well-established and the joke is on the present-day characters. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when it’s this exaggerated nudging and going “HEY HEY GET IT??” it just pisses me off.
There’s a very fascinating story and relationship that could have been explored really, really well. But Cullen decides to take the laziest interpretation of this affair and gives a cookie cutter, tongue bathing romanticized view of very complicated people and the relationships that they have (especially with the Poes) and boiling it down to “Oh, nobody understands this strapping, intelligent man but me, and I’m the only woman who can ever love him, but oh our circumstances forbid it!” It spits on the historical record, and tosses out the more fascinating story for whatever reason that I cannot fathom. There’s probably better biographies that you could find about Poe that have better interpretations and theories than this.