TWAIN AND STANLEY ENTER PARADISE, by Oscar Hijuelos. Grand Central, 465 pp., $28.

Mark Twain and British explorer Henry Morton Stanley seem the unlikeliest of friends. Twain was a fervent anti-imperialist, Stanley a champion of the British Empire in Africa. Twain was an atheist, Stanley a Christian. Twain was an unbuttoned, rascally provocateur in colloquial American English, Stanley a formal, often pompous prose stylist. Yet they met on the Mississippi River before the Civil War and remained friends throughout their lives.

Oscar Hijuelos' new novel "Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise" pairs these 19th century household names with Dorothy Tennant, the aristocratic British painter who would one day marry Stanley, making of their intertwined relationships an engrossing commentary on friendship, fame and fate.

Story'Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise' excerpt

Part of the fascination, for American readers, comes from the fact that we know relatively little about the man who upon finding the lost Scottish missionary near Lake Tanganyika, in East Africa, is said to have uttered, "Dr. Livingston, I presume?"

While eventually hailed as a hero for opening the continent to Europeans -- his image on candy boxes and tea tins, knighted by Queen Victoria -- Stanley grew up in Dickensian poverty. Born out of wedlock and abandoned by his mother, he spent his boyhood in a Welsh workhouse and never overcame the shame of being an unwanted child.

Even after completing his celebrated explorations, he was shunned by the Royal Geographical Society as a "self-serving adventurer" whose exploits were not believable. Once the Society came around, he suffered another wave of attacks because of his association with King Leopold, over Belgium's atrocities in the Congo.

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When Stanley and Twain first met, of course, all this lay in the future. Twain was a river pilot, while the Welshman, only 18 and six years younger, had fled Britain and adopted the name of his surrogate American father, a merchant on the Mississippi. Both men loved literature, had curious minds, and were hugely ambitious. Over the ensuing decades, they would meet periodically and write many letters.

For all its pleasures, this novel does suffer from its posthumous publication. Hijuelos, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" and other novels, died in 2013. Had he lived longer, I suspect, he would have shortened the book, tightened its focus and avoided some graceless bits. Too often, characters deliver windy, lecture-like monologues, and details are needlessly repeated (we're told several times that Tennant is several inches taller than the diminutive Stanley).

Still, I found myself devouring the story, which zigzags back and forth in time, via fictional letters and diary entries. I was like a groupie immersed in a fanzine. Crucial to its appeal: even celebrity can't exempt the stars from tragedy. Stanley always remained a solitary, gloomy figure, perhaps guilt-ridden about his mistreatment of Africans and never reconciled to his fame. As for Twain, he embraced the limelight but experienced more than his share of sorrow: the early deaths of two brothers and three of his four children.

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Tennant is a burst of color in both men's lives, a fount of youth, beauty and bountiful good cheer. As she paints their portraits, they surprise themselves by opening up with intimate self-revelations. Stanley can't believe his great good luck in earning such a wife. (Her tender regard for this wounded man inspires our respect.) Twain, though always loyal to his often-ailing wife Livy, can't help being smitten.

For Twain, paradise isn't present fame but his Missouri boyhood, that "perpetually springlike wonderland." For Stanley, of course, boyhood was hell. Only in his final years, far from London's dinner parties and gossip, at his country estate, Furze Hill, attended by his wife and the real love of his life, their adopted son, Denzil, did he finally attain some measure of happiness.

The novel nicely illustrates friendship's ebb and flow. Just when we think we know someone, he reveals another aspect of personality that deepens the affection or makes us recoil. Twain had to overlook politics that he reviled. Like Tennant, he focused beyond that to the hurt that had shaped the man. No doubt the friendship mattered more to Stanley. Since he had few friends, his need was bedrock deep. Tennant often served as their go-between, an ambassador to occasionally contentious realms.

Hijuelos' portrait of Stanley's troubled soul alone makes this book worth reading. He overcame great obstacles, but found his achievements empty. The American father he "adopted" never legally adopted him. We readers suffer with him as he struggles to believe the love that Tennant so freely offers.