Henry and Clara

Over the weekend, I finished reading Henry and Clara, a historical fiction novel by Thomas Mallon. Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris were invited by the Lincolns to share the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre the night that Lincoln was assassinated. Henry and Clara have their own dramatic story outside of this historic event. Clara’s father and Henry’s mother married when they were in early puberty. Clara and Henry fell in love, but had to push through their family’s disapproval and the Civil War (during which Henry saw some of the worst battles and was injured), before they became engaged. They eventually married and had 3 children, but Henry’s increasing mental problems kept them from being happy. (Today, Henry would probably be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.) They spent many unhappy years together, much of them spent traveling across Europe. Clara’s story ends tragically in Germany when Henry kills her after she prevents him from killing their children. Henry attempted suicide, but lived and spent the remainder of his life in a German asylum for the criminally insane.

While the book overall was interesting, I had difficulty becoming involved in the story. Certain words would jump out at me and disturb the flow of the narrative. It almost feels like the author is trying too hard, throwing in adjectives where none were needed, or using similes and metaphors when actions would have been enough to convey the mood, without it being so forcefully pointed out. The writing style seems to change between an old style such as Austen or Bronte and a more modern, sparser style, and the effect is jarring. An example of text that would bring me out of the story, instead of pulling me further in:
“His face took on a certain sadness. But he immediately cleared it, like a slate being wiped with a sponge, and put on a joking expression. He stripped off his Fillmore rosette and offered it to Clara like a bouquet.”

Another thing I found distracting was the point of view. Most of the story is told in limited third person from Clara’s point of view. Occasionally, however, he will jump to omniscient third person, switching for just a short section to another person’s point of view. If the entire book were told with the omniscient style, it would be fine, but when you read several chapters all from Clara’s point of view and then there are just 2 sentences from her father’s, it breaks the pace of the book.

The most interesting part of the story to me was the time period immediately before and after Lincoln’s assassination. It took me further in depth to the time period than I’ve read before and was very compelling. The period after Henry and Clara’s marriage until the murder was the least exciting, to me. I had a hard time staying involved with the story.

I think I would have preferred Henry and Clara’s story more if it were told as a exaggerated nonfiction than as a novel. If you like historical novels, it might be worth a read; otherwise, I’d skip it. That being said, others clearly disagree with me — this was a 1994 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and has glowing praise from various book reviews and newspapers on the cover.

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