Tuesday, May 25, 2021

White Houses by Amy Bloom

I bought a copy of this shortly after it came out in hardback because I'd just moved to Charleston and it was a book club selection and I thought a book club in my new home would be fun. Unfortunately I didn't sign up in time for the actual book club meeting (they had it at a restaurant and therefore had limited seating), and I put off reading the book, to the extent that I didn't even read the description on the jacket. I think I put it off because I had subconsciously related it to a book by another author, who shall remain nameless as I don't want to be mean about it, whose book of short stories, a selection for my book club back in Raleigh, I did not finish, I did not like, and whose work I don't plan to revisit. But it turns out to be an historical romance novel about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock.

I am so glad I finally got to this. This is a good mix of following the record and being willing to make up the interstitial things. The most delightful invention came as Hick, as Hickock was called, tells of her past. On her way from small town Wisconsin to a career as a journalist there was a detour as she spent a short time (a few weeks? a few months?) in a circus where she learned to type. This felt like a stealth homage to carnivalesque works like Geek Love or Nights at the Circus. If I hadn't been won over already, I would have been at that point. She also invents a cousin of Elanor's to allow for a blackmail subplot. But for the most part it's a fictional autobiography.

I'm not sure how much it reflects Hickok's actual writing style, but the narrative voice here is absolutely convincing. A little world weariness/cynicism a la His Girl Friday that is undercut by the clear strength of emotion between Hick and Eleanor. I've read about this time period in a couple of biographies, including No Ordinary Time which covered both FDR and Eleanor. Bloom captures the excitement of being near a president in office without ever making FDR the focus of the book. There are great barbs about figures of the time and it really captures a believable dynamic of living in the shadow of someone who was both a great president and a great con man (to paraphrase the book), while keeping the focus on Hick's life story and the love story between her and the first lady. I'm kicking myself for not reading this sooner; it's excellent.

Highly Recommended.

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