Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln, from his fraught marriage to his profound depression, but little literature has approached the subject with as light a touch as Louis Bayard’s Courting Mr. Lincoln. Alternating between portraits of Mary Todd and Lincoln’s close friend Joshua Speed, this historical novel always seems removed from Lincoln himself. His future wife, however, is fully present: her brittle, nearly fractured sanity a fully realized half of the narrative. The other is Joshua Speed, the perfect friend who succumbs to jealous possessiveness and attempts to sabotage Lincoln’s marriage engagement.

Bayard serves up a cold portrait of Mary Todd, whose atrocious behavior in a crisis loses the reader’s already frail sympathy. It’s a credit to his narrative skill, however, that her flaws do not alienate the reader altogether. When rescuing Lincoln from a duel she caused and discovering him quite safe, she is not entirely relieved. “He was supposed to be dead. She had in some way counted on that. Had even in some warren of her soul longed for it. For if she were to be the spinster that life had marked her out to be, she might at least have a story to carry with her. The tragic and beautiful tale of a lady who had lost her love—had knelt over his gallant body … Future listeners would weep to hear it and, in weeping, give her the dispensation she craved. Absolve her of the high crime and misdemeanor of being alone.” This is not a sympathetic character. The Mary Todd of Courting Mr. Lincoln is, at times, a monster.

The narrator prefers Joshua Speed. But the reader may not. Speed is too perfect—until he becomes jealous and thus off-putting. Bayard’s strength lies in making these two flawed human specimens interesting, as each pursues the elusive Lincoln. The future president is not so much a novel’s character as he is a penumbra of sadness, deprived youth, overwork, and low self-esteem. With this interplay of traits, Bayard manages to convey Lincoln’s essential greatness—his principles always guide his actions, his thoughts always modify his passions. It is no small achievement to make a character who is so thoroughly abstractly engaging.

Early on, the novel hints at the two great issues that define Lincoln’s legacy: slavery and the Civil War. Courting Mr. Lincoln emphasizes slavery, though the differences between Northern and Southern life that later contributed to the war are mentioned. Speed is very much a Southerner, and his history always implicates slavery. Thinking about why he left the South, Speed recollects working with hemp. “A slave who broke hemp every day would be coughing out his last fragment of lung by thirty. Even the inmates at the Kentucky State Reformatory, it was said, would sooner cut off their hands than break hemp.” After a day pounding hemp, Speed would return to his family’s luxurious mansion. Enslaved people would not. More to the point, Speed would not be expected to pound hemp every day until his lungs gave out—an enslaved person would.

In contrast to Speed’s world of elegant family homes in Kentucky, where everything worked like a well oiled machine, thanks to the efforts of enslaved people, Springfield, Illinois, was a “slovenly, upward striving town,” where almost everyone had links to state government, especially the politically ambitious Lincoln. Those ambitions contrast with other traits. “It didn’t matter how innocent a question Joshua lobbed his way … Lincoln enfolded himself around every query, then disgorged the briefest and least revealing of replies. Always with a faint air of regret, as if he had been tricked into abandoning his Fifth Amendment protections. It was not caginess, it was a carapace.” The implication is that Speed understands these sorts of things about Lincoln; it’s not that Mary Todd doesn’t, but she has other designs. Clearly if matters were up to the narrator, Lincoln and Speed would have continued their days as two happily unmarried bachelors. But this is a historical novel, and history dictated something else.

While the Mary Todd of this book may be narcissistically offended by the looming prospect of her spinsterhood, other depths are revealed. At the end, the story alludes to the death of three of her children without much elaboration. Just this mention, along with her widowhood, conjures up a world of female agony, one that the real Mary Todd Lincoln endured, one that formed much of her—but that is not the subject of this book.