Thursday, April 7, 2022

White Houses by Amy Bloom

White Houses
by Amy Bloom
6 Hours 41 Minutes
Read by Tonya Cornelisse
Published by February 2018 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life. 

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Amy Bloom’s new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.

My Thoughts:
As Lorena "Hick" Hickock looks back, from April 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, she reflects on her past relationship with his nearly equally famous wife, Eleanor. Their relationship, as told by Bloom, began when Hick was a reporter with the Associated Press, called on to cover Roosevelt who had not yet been inaugurated as President. On one trip with the couple, the women began telling each other stories of their lives. It's in this way that we learn Hick's history - abused and misused as a child, she eventually ran off and, literally, joined the circus. But when a relationship there went sour, she was forced to leave, eventually going to school and beginning work as a reporter. In that way, the two women could not have been more different; Eleanor was raised with wealth and the expectation that she would marry well, have lots of babies, and do her duty. In other ways they were very similar, notably in their appearances.
“Eleanor and I were not conventional beauties. That’s what we’d say and we’d laugh, to underscore conventional, as if maybe we were some other kind.”
Even as Hick was forced to leave the A.P. when she became too close to the first couple, she found new work, helping her would-be rival, Franklin, gathering stories of the Depression from across the country. It's not the only way she helped the man who she admired more than she was disappointed by his philandering and aggressive ways of getting what he wanted. It kept her in the inner circle and gave her a reason to liven the White House where her relationship with Eleanor could hardly be entirely kept a secret. Even when they traveled together, Hick became aware that reporters were likely to wise up to the pairs relationship as being something more than another of Eleanor's close female friendships. In those days, though, the press had some boundaries that, apparently, wouldn't be crossed, which accounted for how the two women could travel alone, without Secret Service, and nothing untoward was reported in the press. 

Bloom's paints vivid portraits of her three main characters, not all of it flattering to any of them. The book is filled with humor and sadness. As Eleanor becomes more political, she becomes more convinced that she must leave her relationship with Hick behind, telling Hick it is for the greater good. Years later the two reunite for a "golden time," less about sex and more about two women providing each other comfort. 

There was a lot about this book that I enjoyed, particularly the two women's time alone in conversation. Some of my favorite parts were, as it turns out, entirely fiction, not historical in the least. While it's clear that Bloom did her research, it's also clear that it's much more fiction than history than many other books in the historical fiction genre. The relationship between Eleanor and Lorena is Bloom's story, the rest is background to play up that relationship, to create the characters Bloom wants these women to be. 

When the New York Times reviewed this book, they reviewed it in comparison to Kelly O'Connor McNees' Undiscovered Country. One of the reviewers issues with McNees' story of this relationship is that, in the end, Hickock ended up the lonely, old lesbian. I found it interesting because I felt the same way about this book. Bloom's Hickock remarks repeatedly on how, in their final time together, the two women are old and saggy; her Hickock's relationships after Eleanor seem to never have the same depth of emotion. She does, in fact, appear to have ended her life a lonely woman who never found the love she had once had and who could never be her authentic self. Which is, I think, the reason that I had a lukewarm reaction to this book. As much as Bloom veered toward fiction, I never for a minute expected it to end in any other way than it did in real life. And yet, I couldn't help but wish that the focus would have been less on what was lost and more on what the women had once had. 

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