Book Review: White Houses by Amy Bloom

White HousesAbout the Book

In 1933, President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took up residence in the White House. With them went the celebrated journalist Lorena Hickok – Hick to friends – a straight-talking reporter from South Dakota, whose passionate relationship with the idealistic, patrician First Lady would shape the rest of their lives.

Told by the indomitable Hick, White Houses is the story of Eleanor and Hick’s hidden love, and of Hick’s unlikely journey from her dirt-poor childhood to the centre of privilege and power. Filled with fascinating back-room politics, the secrets and scandals of the era, and exploring the potency of enduring love, it is an imaginative tour-de-force from a writer of extraordinary and exuberant talent.

Format: ebook, hardcover (240 pp.) Publisher: Granta Books
Published: 1st Feb 2018 (ebook), 24th Apr 2018 (hardcover) Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Opening in 1945, shortly after the death of President Franklin D Roosevelt, Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’, recalls her first meetings with Eleanor, the development of their relationship and her move into the White House.  What follows is a series of flashbacks to the years they shared together.

One such flashback is to a train trip during which they share their most intimate secrets and childhood memories.  Eleanor’s stories take only a few minutes of reading time.  Hick’s take much longer.  Indeed the story sharing scene seems to act as a pretext for a long section depicting the traumatic events Hick endured as a child, her escape from an abusive home, her time spent with some delightfully eccentric circus folk and her eventual move to a career in journalism.  At the same time, it charts the awakening of Hick’s sexuality and her growing realisation that marriage was never going to be a route she would take, that ‘Women were not interruptions, for me.’

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the way Hick’s early life was written about but I wasn’t expecting it would form such a focus of the book.  Throughout the book, I felt I was getting to know Hick a whole lot better than I was getting to know Eleanor, who always remained somewhat elusive as a character even during flashbacks to scenes in the White House.  At times, Hick’s adoration for Eleanor serves to make that undoubtedly great lady appear a little like a saint on a pedestal.  ‘I loved being the brave and battered little dinghy.  She loved being the lighthouse.’

I really liked the narrative voice the author created for Hick with its sharp dialogue, witty wisecracks and waspish putdowns.  ‘I’d met Wallis Simpson.  Twice.  She wasn’t pretty.  She was a skinny rough-houser from a shitbox Southern town but she had done a phenomenal job of remaking herself, vanquishing good looking rivals, and turning a genial, not stupid, sort of spineless royal into her love-slave.’   

What I also admired was the convincing, heartfelt and sincere depiction of the love between two women.   There were lovely little intimate moments that revealed the women’s affection for each other.

‘She smiled when she saw me coming and I did the same.  When we had breakfast together, I sometimes took a sausage off her plate.’ 

‘And when I was the object of her love, when her eyes lit up across the room, when she touched her fingertips to the pulse at the base of her throat, to mark the spot for me, to mark herself, I thought that there was no sacrifice I wouldn’t make.’

As a story about the relationship between two women at a time when such relationships had to remain largely secret, White Houses scores highly and there was a great deal that I enjoyed about the book.  The true nature of Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship has been disputed by historians over the years and the author freely admits that White Houses is a ‘work of fiction, from beginning to end.’

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Granta Books, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Tender, intimate, moving

Try something similar…Carol by Patricia Highsmith (click here to read my review)

Amy BloomAbout the Author

Amy Bloom is the author of Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; and Normal. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.

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