Mrs. Lincoln's Sisters
Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters is a perfectly okay slice of historical fiction that ends up getting subsumed in too dry, too technical prose. While Chiaverini tries to balance the points of view of a slew of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sisters, they often come off as rather plain of speech.
Elizabeth, Frances, Mary, Ann and Emilie Todd make up a pod of siblings, some half, some full, who were destined for incredibly disparate fates. Mary Todd was the center of attention in her household – and to her sister’s occasional horror, the reason why the rest of them tended not to get any attention at all.
Elizabeth, Frances, Ann and Emilie are all called together by one horrible incident – Mary’s 1875 suicide attempt, and the subsequent insanity trial bought by Robert Lincoln, her sole surviving son, to have her declared incompetent. The sisters have gathered to either support Robert’s suit or think of a way to best support Mary and quell the scandal. Years of dealing with Mary’s dramas and tragedies – and the way her marriage to Abraham Lincoln has either rayed their lives with joy or made them nightmarishly difficult – has made some of them less than sympathetic to them.
The women divide over whether or not the tumbleweed of Mary’s existence in this world means she deserves what’s happened to her. They wonder whether or not she’s truly insane – or if losing three sons and her husband to early, tragic (in one case, violent) death has left her emotionally broken. Elizabeth – the eldest among them – wants to bring Mary into her household and care for her. Ann and Frances want her committed. And beloved, vibrant, youngest Emilie stands in the neutral spot between them both.
The biggest trouble with Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters is that it takes too dry and distant of an approach. The book would’ve worked beautifully as a biography; instead, it exists in the realm of fiction, and manages not to have enough ‘fiction’ to make it juicy or enough ‘biography’ to make for fresh reading.
Mary, of course, is seen from an outsider’s perspective, and perhaps if the book had decided to give her a viewpoint on her sisters in return there may have been more depth to the prose. Instead, it all comes off as surface knowledge without giving readers a lot of insight into any of the sisters’ emotional states or feelings.
Which is a shame, because the women – Confederates and Union loyalists, complex and angry, real and soft – are so very interesting if you look them up. Sadly, the author does a poor job of building distinct voices for each of the women, so they come off as a blob of feelings and intensity instead of fully formed human beings.
But Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters fall tragically short of its mark – it could have been so much more than it is, but instead leaves the reader yearning for more human emotion instead of more dry, scholarly dissertation.