‘No love like old love.
I’ve done the flowers as best I could. I got stock and snapdragons, pink roses and daffodils, from the Italian florist and I’ve put a vaseful in every room. I’ve straightened up the four rooms, which were already neat. The radio still works. The record player works too, and someone has brought in albums of Cole Porter and Gershwin and there is one scratchy record of ‘La Bohème’ with Lisa Perli from when I was a more regular visitor. I’ve gone to the corner grocery twice (eggs, milk, bread, horseradish, cheese, sardines, and I went back again because there was no can opener) and up the street one more time, for booze. I hope that at five o’clock, we’ll be drinking sidecars. I bought lemons. I want everything we need close by. I am hoping we don’t see so much as the lobby all weekend’.
Told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, White Houses tells the fictionalised tale of her relationship with first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Beginning just after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lorena comes to Eleanor’s aid to provide company and support. Through flashbacks from Lorena’s childhood up to her time as journalist for the White House, the story of her and Eleanor’s connection gains more depth and understanding. Although Lorena’s first-person narrative is very one-sided you get the sense that Eleanor was an enigma that could never quite be described or understood fully. She slips out of Lorena’s grip, just as she slips out of the readers. Despite being a focal point of the narrative, Eleanor always seems to remain on the periphery. Even through Lorena’s observations, we come no closer to knowing who this forward-thinking, progressive first lady was.
However, what interested me most about Bloom’s White Houses was Lorena’s own childhood and adolescence. Lorena Hickok had a fascinating history. Brought up in poverty to an abusive father and a helpless mother who dies young, Lorena escapes to the circus almost. Falling into odd jobs – one of which being a secretary in a travelling curiosity show – Lorena somehow finds her feet in the world of journalism. A route into the field that would be impossible now, Lorena becomes a no-nonsense heavyweight, able to make it in a predominantly male world. That is until she is given an assignment to follow the presidential candidacy race. As soon as she meets Eleanor she knows she can no longer be the ruthless, cut-throat journalist she once was. With Eleanor she is mesmerised.
Although based around the fascinating lives of two very strong and independent women in history, Bloom’s narrative didn’t capture my interest much. Perhaps it was the style, told through flashbacks that jumped around in time. Or it might have been how unnatural and forced the scenes between Eleanor and Lorena felt. Although I commend Bloom for writing about lesbian love, particularly between older women, which seems almost non-existent in the media, I just wasn’t convinced by the story.
‘White Houses’ by Amy Bloom was published on 13th February. Thank you to Random House, via Netgalley, for the review copy.