When I mentioned to bookworm friends that I was reading a biography of Mary Lincoln, I inevitably got two questions: "Mary Todd Lincoln?" and "Is it good?"

Both questions proved tricky to answer.

Yes, the book is about Mary Todd Lincoln, the still-controversial wife of Abraham Lincoln. But author Catherine Clinton is quick to point out that almost everything about Mrs. Lincoln -- even her name -- is "contested territory."

We find out on Page 5 that while Mrs. Lincoln (as Clinton refers to her) has become known by both her maiden and married names, she never called herself by both. However, Clinton doesn't attempt to explain why. She doesn't tell us how the dual name came to be, expound on its possible meanings or defend Mrs. Lincoln against the detractors who consider her too proud of her pedigree. Instead of entering the fray, she simply goes on to detail Mary's aristocratic upbringing and contrast it with that of her husband.

That arm's-length approach ultimately weakens "Mrs. Lincoln: A Life." The book is informative. We learn all about Mary -- from her childhood "love of melodrama" to her on-again, off-again engagement to Abraham, to her flirtations with "spiritualism" after the death of two of her children, and her struggles with debt and depression.

And Clinton's depiction of Mary is admirably evenhanded. It's clear that the First Lady was bright, unconventional and deeply committed to her husband and children -- as well as a spendthrift, a schemer and, sometimes, a dupe.

Clinton details how Mary racked up bills, then needled wealthy political contacts for the money to pay them. She also mounts a defense for Mary's attempts to revamp a rather bedraggled White House (something for which she was viciously attacked in the press) and for trying to continue to advise her husband, as she had done before he became president.

Clinton's Mary is fascinating, but she never seems to come to life.

In laying out scholarly disputes (Was Mary mad? Did she try to commit suicide?) and detailing the turbulent times (from Civil War to Chicago's horrific fire), Mary Lincoln, the woman, gets a little lost.

Perhaps that's because Clinton is trying to establish Mary -- a Southern belle who ends up representing the Union -- as emblematic of the divided nation under which she rose to prominence. But it's the picture of this fascinating, complicated woman that ends up fractured.

Connie Nelson is the Star Tribune's Home+Garden editor.