White Houses

Unknown-1On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew.  Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical.  With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.

Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s  miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press.  When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances.  Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.

The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule.  Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked.  In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House.   It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be.  Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.

Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book.  Hick notes:

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… 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?’ ”

Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness.  In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.

I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.

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Five Books To Anticipate Reading in 2018

Five Books to Pre-Order for the New Year

Unknown Winter by Ali Smith – available in the United States on January 9th.

If you enjoyed Smith’s first book in this series, Autumn, she follows up with the second in her seasonal quartet – Winter.  In her keynote lecture for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, Ali Smith promised –  “The novel (Winter) matters because of Donald Trump.”  Smith’s second novel in the series is set in the aftermath of Trump’s election; Winter has “four people, strangers and family, {who}converge on a fifteen-bedroom house in Cornwall for Christmas…It’s the season that teaches us survival.”

9780812995664 White Houses by Amy Bloom – available in the United States February 13th

Historical fiction about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, the Associated Press journalist who fell in love with the First Lady and moved into the White House with her and the President.  Hickok was Eleanor Roosevelt’s increasingly confidante, cheerleader and intimate partner.

34888106  The Black Painting by Neil Olson – available January 9th

A wealthy East Coast family faces the suspicious death of its patriarch and the unsolved theft of a self-portrait by Goya rumored to cause madness and death. Art in a mystery thriller.

9780735221925  The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake – available  January 9th

  1. Five parallel stories, from Colonial times to the present, set in Newport, Rhode Island.  Smith weaves lives into “a narrative odyssey that braids together three centuries of aspiration and adversity. A witty and urbane bachelor of the Gilded Age embarks on a high-risk scheme to marry into a fortune; a young writer soon to make his mark turns himself to his craft with harrowing social consequences; an aristocratic British officer during the American Revolution carries on a courtship that leads to murder; and, in Newport’s earliest days, a tragically orphaned Quaker girl imagines a way forward for herself and the slave girl she has inherited…(Kirkus)”

51EOygu5XjL._AC_US218_The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani – available January 9th

Winner of France’s Goncourt literary prize.   Set in an apartment in the upscale tenth arrondissement of Paris, the story “is a compulsive, riveting…exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, and motherhood (Publisher’s Weekly).”   Louise is the perfect nanny to two young children; she cleans, stays late whenever asked, and hosts children’s parties, but as the parents’ dependence on her increases, she has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her.