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BOOK REVIEW: White Houses by Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

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:

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a novel inspired by the true-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her ‘first friend’, Lorena Hickok. I love books that tell the untold story of real women’s lives, and books which illuminate history in new and fascinating ways, and White Houses did both for me. I’ve not studied US history in any depth, and so the Roosevelts are just names to me. I had no sense of shock in learning that the wife of the 32nd President of the United States kept her lesbian lover in the White House. I felt only curiosity and a sense of wonderment that their love affair is not better known. I cannot imagine that happening today!

The novel is told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’ to her friends. The first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times, Hick had grown up dirt-poor in South Dakota and dragged herself up through her own indomitable will and razor-sharp wit. She first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign, and before long the two are going on holiday together and Hick has given up her career to move into the White House.

The book is not told in a linear fashion. It moves back and forth in time, much as a woman remembering her own life would tell it. Hick tells the story of her father’s abuse and abandonment, her first sexual experimentations while working in a circus, her love affairs and the difficulties of being a lesbian in 1930s America. Her voice is jaded, cynical and yet also lyrical:

‘Every women’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.’

The relationship between the two women was kept hidden for many years, but in 1979 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered eighteen boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the thirty years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. Here is one excerpt:

Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.

White Houses is only a slim book, but it delves deep into the interior lives of the two women, their heartaches and mistakes, their betrayals and failures. Hick is such a complex, difficult and vulnerable character, and her love for Eleanor is achingly real. A really fascinating read.

You might also be interested in my review of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

I was lucky enough to interview Amy Bloom for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Friday, August 03, 2018

Photo by Elena Seibert 2017

This week we welcome Amy Bloom, author of White Houses, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I am not much of a daydreamer, except when writing. Most of writing is daydreaming the actions and words of your characters.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. I wanted to be a professional reader (not an editor, just a reader.) when it became clear, that wasn't a thing, I gave up. I found my way back to writing in my mid-30s.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in New York City, NY and grew up in the suburbs--lovely and sometimes loathsome--right outside the city. Now, I live in what seems to be a transplanted, eccentric seaside English village, complete with people in pyjamas happily walking their corgis. I like to do pretty much what I get to do: garden, waste time, write, read, go out for pizza, see action films, chill with my family.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I was researching the 30s and 40s in America and kept stumbling over the Roosevelts, who so dominate that period in our country. This lead to Blanch Weisen Cook's great bio of Eleanor Roosevelt, which led me to the 3,000 letters between Mrs. Roosevelt and her lover and dear friend, Lorena Hickok, who actually lived IN the White House for all of their love affair and some years after. I thought: what an extraordinary love story and how hard people worked to hide it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I hope for the best. Sometimes I have a map. Sometimes I follow it. My life is easier when I plan.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I love my dream life but it rarely features characters from my novels. My late parents and extended family show up in eveything from costume drama to Sondheim musicals.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

I felt deeply, that no love is wasted--which is a good way to find oneself feeling, in mid-life. But, no, no serendipity. Also, since coincidence doesn't matter much to me, I wasn't looking.

Where do you write, and when?
I write 5-6 days a week, at my desk, in my dinky office with a beautiful view of the harbor.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Like most other writers--after. I do appreciate, and cherish, the opportunity for revision.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Watch TV, read poetry, call my sister--but all while sitting near my desk. Cant give up entirely, even if it's going horribly.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I wish I could. Sometimes, one stares at a blank, unyielding wall. I do some laundry, cook dinner and keep staring, studying the cracks, while fooling myself that I'm not.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I take a nap almost every day that I write. Maybe it's helpful--it's certainly a fact.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Auden, Austen, Kenyon, Hirshfield, Roberston Davies, Carol Shields, Val McDermid, Colwin, Wilde, Percival Everett.

What do you consider to be good writing?

Please see the above exemplars.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Welcome the chance to re-write that first, awful draft. Get that first awful draft written. Rememebr that no one cares about your writing except you; if you dont protect it and support it, no one will.

What are you working on now?
ARGH! Getting the research done for a novel and doing some TV work as well, without letting my right hand bump into my left hand.

You can read my review of White Houses here.

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