I’ve got so many deal-breakers when it comes to historical fiction that I sound like a pain. You can read about them here. Or you can simply ignore my carry-on and know that I really enjoyed Amy Bloom’s White Houses.
The story is told from the perspective of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’. Hick grew up in poverty in South Dakota, suffered abuse at the hand of her father, and was sent to work at a young age. Resourceful and tenacious, she soon carved a career as a journalist. When she met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 (while covering Franklin’s first presidential campaign trail), a friendship developed, which soon turned to love.
Hick took a job in the Roosevelt administration and moved into the White House, where her status as ‘first friend’ was an open secret, as were Franklin’s own lovers.
Missy and Franklin put a smile on reporters’ faces. Eleanor and I were no one’s favourite secret. I tended to scowl.
But their relationship was on-again-off-again. Hick’s bond with Eleanor was tested, primarily because she felt that others took advantage of Eleanor’s generosity –
Eleanor’s love was like some shabby old footstool. Everyone used it without wanting it and no one ever gave it a moment’s thought.
Of course, it was more of Eleanor that Hick wanted.
I pretended every day to be Eleanor’s friend. I pretended to feel fond and calm, concerned but apart. There wasn’t any room for what I did feel, which was a sort of furious shame, run through with terrible strands of hope.
The story moves back and forth in time, shifting between Eleanor and Hick’s growing relationship and their deeply felt affection that had developed from shared experience and a long history together. The details of Eleanor’s private life could have easily been salacious but Bloom is respectful and thoughtful, and her exploration of ‘mature’ love reads beautifully (it reminded me a little of Haruf’s Our Souls at Night).
While her affair with Eleanor is the focus, Hick’s relationship with Franklin is equally interesting – rather than competing with him for Eleanor’s attention, Hick and Franklin develop an unlikely alliance. Both exasperated and admiring of him, she says –
He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day. His charm and cheer blinded you, made you deaf to your own thoughts, until all you could do was nod and smile, while the frost came down, killing you where you stood. He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?
There’s something terribly melancholy about this story – the acceptance by two people that they will never live and love the way they truly want to; that sometimes love isn’t enough; that it’s possible to live without bitterness and regret despite the crappy hand you might have been dealt – It is not true that if you can imagine it, you can have it.
I received my copy of White Houses from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve gone to the corner grocery twice (eggs, milk, bread, horseradish cheese, sardines, and I went back again because there was no can opener) and up the street one more time, for booze. I hope that at five o’clock, we’ll be drinking sidecars. I bought lemons.