Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

I’m a sucker for these fictional books about famous people’s wives, and as I love Edgar Allan Poe, Mrs. Poe instantly appealed to me. I picked up this book and thought to myself, “this is a bad idea,” but I read it anyway. It was a bad idea. It was not about Poe’s wife, Virginia, but instead about Poe’s alleged mistress, Frances Osgood. Apparently some historians believe that these two had a few rolls in the hay, and Cullen uses that scant theory as a jumping off point for her bizarre novel.

Franny has just been abandoned by her scalawag of a husband, and now she is left to fend for herself and her two young daughters with her quasi-successful writing career. Franny is known for her children’s literature, but she has been trying to make a name for herself in the adult world through writing dull poetry about flowers. She is told to write creepier stuff, since that is what everyone wants these days thanks to the success of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Then, she coincidentally meets Poe at some conversational gathering that I still don’t really understand the point of, but that’s neither here nor there. Poe wants her to come over and meet his ailing young cousin/wife, Virginia. Franny agrees, and Virginia is a weirdo who is dreadfully sick and writes terrible poetry of her own. Franny and Poe grow closer, and one thing leads to another. The two aren’t very discreet about their relationship, as they publish love poems back and forth to each other in the newspaper that Poe runs. Ultimately, Franny has to choose between her torrid affair and a stable, more respectable life with her husband, who randomly comes back to claim her and the children.

This is a quick read, but it’s an oftentimes painful one. Cullen’s attempts at steamy language are uncomfortable, to say the least. For instance, at one point Franny thinks to herself, “He was close enough that I could smell his masculine musk.” Oooh how dreamy. On the prospect of being separated from her man, Franny muses “Oh, we had to see each other – to not do so was as sure to kill us as withdrawing water and sunshine.” These passages make me cringe with embarrassment for Cullen. Maybe some women do think these sorts of things about their musky men, but I sincerely hope they do not.

I don’t know if the real-life Poe and Osgood ever had this sort of relationship, but Cullen’s presentation feels very forced and unlikely. Virginia is cast as quite the villain in spite of her historical reputation as a meek and innocent child-like being, and Poe is depicted as, well, very musky.

If you have any biographical knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe, this novel is likely to irritate you. It’s not completely terrible, it just feels off. Audiences won’t root for Poe and Osgood to make it as a couple, instead, they will marvel over the mechanics of how Cullen crammed them together in the first place.

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