Thursday, October 26, 2017

Book Review: "White Houses" by Amy Bloom

Fifty-five years after her death, and more than 70 years after she left the White House following her husband's death, Eleanor Roosevelt remains one of the most intriguing women in history. She certainly was a role model for trailblazing women not interested in being confined to the boxes in which society wants to contain them, but rather working to bring about change wherever it is needed.

While much is known about her public persona, her personal life has always remained more of an enigma. More and more, it is understood that her marriage to FDR was more one of convenience than romance, and while his affairs were the stuff of gossip, hers, with women, were kept more secret.

Perhaps Eleanor's most notable relationship was with Lorena "Hick" Hickok, once the most prominent female reporter in the U.S. Hick and Eleanor met in 1932 when Hick was covering FDR's campaign for president. Instantly smitten although the two come from vastly different worlds—the patrician Eleanor was both enchanted and horrified by Hick's rough-and-tumble exterior—after spending some time together their friendship deepens into intimacy.

Hick moves into the White House and becomes known as Eleanor's "first friend." Their relationship is as talked about within White House circles as FDR's are, but the president seems content if his wife is, and he gives Hick a job within the administration. And while it is clear both women love each other, Eleanor is conflicted about her feelings for Hick, her role as First Lady, and whether she should continue to enjoy her relationship, or whether she isn't a suitable match, and if she should set Hick free.

Amy Bloom's White Houses is a fictionalized account of the decades-long relationship between two women who have seen so much, yet still find wonder in each other, even at a time where such relationships could mean ruin. It's a story about how the power of love isn't always enough to see you through, but the strength of a friendship can power a relationship. It's also a story of a woman who grew up poorer than poor finds herself in the midst of a life she couldn't even begin to dream of, yet she can't have everything she wants.

"I wasn't in love with Eleanor. We had agreed that 'in love' had burned out after four years for us, the way it does for most of us, in two months or two years and, I guess, never for some lucky people. Instead of a trail of fire roaring through, those people get small candles steadily lighting the way home until death do they part, and only the young are stupid enough to think that those two old people, him gimping, her squinting, are not in love. I got by. I lived amputated, which sounds worse than it felt. I learned to do all kinds of large and small tasks, with part of me missing, and I feel pretty sure that the people who watched me in the world thought that I was entirely able-bodied."

White Houses follows the two women through three decades of their relationship, and flashes back to Hick's hardscrabble childhood and young adulthood, where she learned how to fend for herself. Although it moves a little slowly at times, it's a poignant love story and a look at history that I found fascinating, moving, and thought-provoking. Hick is brash and confident, yet she has a tender, vulnerable side that Eleanor often brings out in her, while Eleanor had two faces—the public woman bent on saving the world, and the private woman who just wanted to be loved but didn't know if she was worthy.

I have been a big fan of Amy Bloom's for a number of years and find her writing absolutely dazzling. This book is beautifully written, and while I didn't completely warm to Bloom's last few historical novels, preferring her more modern fiction, I really enjoyed this one. Her words conveyed the emotional conflict, the longing, and the protectiveness both women felt, and brought so much depth to this story.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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