From Publishers Weekly
Family dysfunction brings down a president in this lively if feckless historical melodrama. In her debut, Titone, a historical researcher, says almost nothing about John Wilkes Booth's plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, focusing instead on his backstory and (speculative) psychological motivation. The tale has vibrant leads, including Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, a famous tragedian and raging alcoholic, and his domineering brother Edwin, the biggest stage star of the Civil War era. Then there's John Wilkes himself, a narcissist and hilariously bad actor--Titone regales readers with scathing reviews--whose good looks and hammy onstage swordplay drew crowds. The author's sketchy theory of Lincoln's assassination puts it at the confluence of John's self-dramatizing vanity, romantic identification with the underdog South, and sibling rivalry; she presents the murder as a coup de théâtre that finally lets John upstage Edwin. Although overstuffed with digressions, Titone's account paints a colorful panorama of 19th-century theatrical life, with its endless drunken touring through frontier backwaters and showbiz pratfalls. Neither deep nor tragic, her John Wilkes is oddly convincing: the first of the grandiose hollow men in America's cast of assassins.
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If one chooses to do so, one could probably discover a complex of personal demons that supposedly motivated every lone political assassin. So Oswald was acting out his frustration over his failures as a husband and political activist. Sirhan Sirhan was seeking relief from loneliness rather than striking a blow for Palestine. And so on and so on to the point of absurd psychobabble. Yet, given the limitations inherent in such efforts, this is actually a very well-done examination of the trials and tribulations of a remarkable family. The family patriarch, Junius, was a heralded Shakespearean actor, an alcoholic, and an often emotionally abusive parent. His favored son, Edwin, was generally regarded as the greatest American actor of the nineteenth century. Then there was poor John—desperate for his father’s approval, intensely jealous of his brother, and frustrated by his reputation as a mediocre performer. Titone does a fine job of contrasting the personalities and even the acting styles of the brothers. Her portrait of Edwin as a decent man haunted by his brother’s act is often moving. --Jay Freeman
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