Picks and Pans Review: Henry and Clara

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Thomas Mallon

Clara Harris, protege of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, shared the presidential box at the Ford Theater the night the President was shot. Author Thomas Mallon plays well with this obscure historical item to produce a novel of passion and mystery.

The lives and fates of the Lincolns are enmeshed with Henry and Clara's before and beyond the assassination, and are woven through the story with great inventiveness. Henry and Clara are lovers battling society. His widowed mother married Clara's widowed father when they were children, so their union is seen as incestuous. The themes of brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, and incest run strong here, with frequent allusions to Shakespeare and Clara's beloved Romantic poets. Henry's cousin Howard, who loves her unrequitedly and dies young, is her Keats. Henry begins as her Byron but ends as a mad Wordsworth by way of Othello.

Unfortunately, the reader gradually loses interest in Henry and Clara, as they lose interest in each other. It's Mallon's mystery twist on what actually happened in that box at the theater that will keep you from putting this novel down. (Ticknor & Fields, $22.95)

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