The extraordinary relationship between the popular, complicated author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, and his longtime secretary Isabel Lyon is wonderfully reimagined in this absorbing novel. Cullen (Mrs. Poe) depicts an immensely talented and virile, yet crude, hot-tempered, self-centered late-in-life Samuel, whose own children fear him and who remains tormented by his childhood with slave-owning parents—sordid realities that lie beneath the famous wit. Raised wealthy, Isabel must work after her father dies; she becomes social secretary to Livy Clemens, Samuel’s seriously ill wife, but in reality, she works for Samuel. Isabel is devoted, scheduling appearances, managing employees, paying bills and becoming the confidante to an aging, increasingly troubled, regretful man: “I kill the people I love with words,” he confides to Isabel. An intimacy develops, yet certain lines are not crossed. Messy romantic entanglements involving Samuel’s daughter Clara and her lover, Samuel’s business manager and Isabel, and even a visiting Helen Keller and her teacher’s husband make Samuel enraged and distrustful. Isabel and Samuel’s memorabilia are the basis of Cullen’s fascinating interpretation of this early 20th-century literary immortal, distinguished by incisive character portrayals and no-holds-barred scrutiny.