White Houses: A Novel by Amy Bloom

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I never envied a wife or a husband, until I met Eleanor. Then, I would have traded everything I ever had, every limo ride, every skinny-dip, every byline and carefree stroll for what Franklin had, polio and all. 

I never thought I would find a fictional novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and her “scandalous love” for her friend Lorena Hickok ( Hick) to be so romantic. It’s not Eleanor though, it’s Hick’s life that I couldn’t get enough of. By turns horrifying and exciting, I wanted to save her from her disturbingly abusive, poverty-stricken upbringing and celebrate every success and thrill she worked so hard for later in life. Hick’s musings about Eleanor’s children rang true, mothers aren’t real people in the eyes of their kids, even as they grow into adulthood. Mothers take care of things, and certainly weren’t expected to be sexual beings with needs, more so back in the day. Women were meant to be proper, Eleanor seems to be forgiven nothing yet Franklin certainly was indulged by his children, for his passions be they women or anything else. Eleanor seemed to belong to a different time, how different things could have played out in our modern times. One thing that was certain then, her children were needy, it was she who carried them and who was betrayed by their loyalties. Hick’s life has made her perceptive, and she is the eye into the marriage of the Roosevelt’s. Hick tells the story of Eleanor’s motherhood too, and the resentment she feels in the treatment she often witnessed that Eleanor received as the children aged.

Eleanor’s desire to know ‘once upon a time’ tales from Lorena’s childhood was crushing, and the differences in their suffering vast. Eleanor may have been a disappointment to her mother, for lack of beauty but Lorena’s life is a nightmare by comparison, one that makes any tale of woe in Eleanor’s memory seem golden. Though similar loses are shared between the ‘companions’ the differences are extreme. Suffering is a strange best, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the wounds that seem so miniscule when held up against what Lorena has survived. There is a part in the novel where Eleanor is doing the proper thing of a first lady, dining as only those during the depression should, bland food, nothing of pleasure that her grand status can certainly afford and Lorena’s thought “…Eleanor, you have never eaten food like this in your life, except when you wanted to,” expresses perfectly how those with nothing would feel. Eleanor means well, she wants to relate to the people, to be deserving of her place in history, and yet there is something so funny, a little condescending about it. It comes off as ridiculous and yet there is something tender and delicate about Eleanor, who looked like a bruiser, how deceiving our bodies are.

This is a beautiful love story, Hick’s is there when Eleanor loses Franklin, and even grieves herself with the country for the loss of a great man. She is there to feel the wounds Eleanor suffers when her children are disloyal, as she tells it “Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.”  It’s fascinating someone who came from dirt was able to make her way into the household of the White House, and into the heart of Eleanor. That Franklin tolerated it seems very progressive considering the times, and of course he had his freedom to devour the ladies, which he did with gusto but one wonders what sort of man he must have been, to allow this affair to flourish under his roof. Yes, theirs was a marriage of convenience, nothing shocking there really, but someone with his power, particularly in those days, could easily deny his wife her romantic freedoms.

What a read! I adored Hick. I don’t always devour fictional novels about real people, in fact the idea often horrifies me because the liberty fiction gives the author seems to rob people of their truth. Yet I’ve read a few that have really moved me and I add this one to that list of favorites. This is one to add to your TBR pile in 2018!

Publication Date: February 13, 2018

Random House

 

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