The premise of Amy Bloom’s newest novel, “White Houses,” is inherently risqué: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt has a lesbian love affair with reporter Lorena Hickok. It’s an intriguing concept, if primarily for a magazine tabloid. The book promises gossip, drama, and maudlin affairs. The result, however, is far humbler—despite all appearances, this isn’t a book about Eleanor Roosevelt. Instead, Hick (the narrator and Roosevelt’s love interest) consistently steals the show. Bloom falls in love with her protagonist as much as her protagonist has fallen for the First Lady. At its core, “White Houses” is about a lost woman finding herself—and the story is strongest when Bloom lets it remain exactly that.
Especially in the novel’s early chapters, Bloom sticks tightly to her narrator. There is little plot to distract from the character development: It’s a close reading of a human being. This rhetorical decision is both poignant and bleak. There are endless gray years in her childhood home in South Dakota. There’s a lot of Depression-era grit. Overall, the backstory is the novel’s shakiest section. It’s a little too lengthy and occasionally mawkish.
But eventually, Bloom’s lyrical writing style comes into its own. In South Dakota, Hick interacts solely with backstory-supplying villains. In Washington, Bloom introduces supporting characters who are interesting in their own rights. There is a gay Roosevelt cousin who adds a layer of political awareness and a secretary-mistress who complicates Franklin D. Roosevelt’s charismatic exterior. Hick herself benefits the most from the setting change, however, thumping gracelessly around the White House with an amusing lack of shame. She loves and grieves and walks her dog. She meditates on being physically unattractive (“I wasn’t cute. I knew goddamn well I wasn’t cute.”), and on aging (“I can read for an hour or so at a time but I miss reading books by the boatload.”) Author and narrator alike do best in the Capitol—Bloom feeds off the city’s political energy.
Notably, Eleanor Roosevelt is the one character who fails to brighten. In a book ostensibly starring the First Lady, she remains nebulous—Bloom relies on a few overt adjectives (from the inside cover: “idealistic, patrician”) to characterize an entire protagonist. Admittedly, Roosevelt presents a historical challenge for her author. The First Lady is famous, and therefore anything Bloom writes comes into implicit comparison with pre-existing beliefs. Lorena Hickok is a real person too, but the average layman is less likely to be well-versed in her story. Hick can flourish, then, because there are fewer preconceptions about her personality. Bloom thrives when unearthing the neuroses of a more fictional heroine: She is strongest with characters who’ve had less previous analysis.
Bloom’s propensity for detailed character development makes for a great fantasy—and a compelling narrative. What it’s not, however, is fully historical, despite it’s genre. “White Houses” sometimes feels like a story that has not quite found its niche. Bloom isn’t especially interested in Eleanor: She doesn’t analyze 1940s politics of sexuality too deeply, and she is more interested in FDR as a womanizer than as a president. Bloom loves her characters, and she often does right by them. But “White Houses” is at its best when it loses its political veneer and descends into a cherry-blossom fantasy.
Only in the book’s conclusion does the depth of Bloom’s character development become fully apparent. Bloom spends 200 pages unpacking the life of Lorena Hickok, and in the last 10 that life comes into focus. Eleanor Roosevelt, the professed heroine, is dead—and Hick’s grief is poignantly drawn. It is intensely regretful (did Hick compromise too much while Eleanor was alive?) and touching (could things have ended any other way?). The story ends how it should have begun: With the meditations of its narrator on the strange, passionate life she leads. “White Houses” is Hick’s book through and through—sometimes achingly beautiful, sometimes too exhaustive. If Bloom errs, however, it is primarily because she is pretending that her story could have been anything else.
—Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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