“White Houses” must be one of the most touchingly romantic stories I’ve read in a long time. This is also a novel with searing political insight that offers an alternative view of history. Amy Bloom writes from the perspective of Lorena Hickock who was a journalist and author of the early-mid 20th century. She also shared a strong relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The enormous affection between these two women is well documented but historians still disagree about whether their relationship was physical or not. In Bloom’s novel, Lorena and Eleanor’s enduring love for each other is unequivocal and she frequently takes the reader into their bedroom – not in a gratuitous way, but to show the transformative effect and power of the intense love they shared. At the same time she portrays the seat of government throughout crucial years of US history when FDR led the country through The Depression and the Second World War. This was also a time in LGBT history when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to persecute “subversive” behaviour and specifically kept a large file on Eleanor who was a famed liberal and civil rights activist. The result is a tale which is large in scope while also offering an achingly intimate portrait of a love affair cruelly shaken by extraordinary circumstances.
Lorena’s narrative weaves together fragments from her long relationship with Eleanor from blissful moments of their “honeymoon” when they escaped together to enjoy some solitude to the painful time when Lorena moved out of the White House to avoid embroiling Eleanor in a scandal. Lorena also recounts the story of her life from an impoverished childhood to the tricky position of being a female reporter in a male-dominated newsroom trying to hide her lesbianism: “I pretended that even though I hadn’t found the right man, I did want one. I pretended that I envied their wives and that took effort.” What’s particularly interesting about the way her past is related is that its in the context of a scene where Eleanor invites Lorena to tell the story of her life. While the reader receives the unedited version, Lorena leaves out parts that she knows will particularly distress Eleanor such as the sexual abuse she suffered from her father as an adolescent and her moment of sexual discovery with an individual named Gerry who is “brother and sister in one body” at a carnival she worked at for a brief period. This strikingly shows the complexity of how lovers exchange stories of their pasts which are carefully edited or modified, not necessarily in order to deceive their partner, but to drip feed what they know their lover can take.
Something I loved so much about this novel is the way Bloom realistically portrays the physicality of these women’s relationship. Lorena and Eleanor are aware that they aren’t “conventional beauties” but in bed “what may not look beautiful does feel beautiful.” It’s so moving the way she describes how features which would be scorned in public can become desirable qualities in the intimate space of romance. What’s more she describes how empowering this can be: “In bed, we were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we’d never been: loved, saucy, delighted, and delightful.” It’s a safe area where these individuals can reckon with their pasts and identity can become fluid to escape the confines of the roles they have to play in public. The only novel I can recall that comes close to exploring this kind of complexity is Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs To You” – especially in the way that both books portray how LGBT people seek out spaces where desire can be honestly expressed as a way to enact all the multifaceted aspects of their personalities which aren’t socially acceptable to reveal in public.
What’s so especially engaging about this novel and makes it so compulsively readable is that Lorena’s voice is exremely witty and engaging. She’s a plain-talking journalist who often cuts through the social niceties of high society’s pomp. Lorena speaks frankly to many characters including Eleanor’s duplicitous daughter, a tortured gay cousin named Parker who comes close to ruining the family and Franklin D Roosevelt’s lover. She hilarious recounts her frank disdain for the “pink turkey parts” men have between their legs. There’s also a mesmerising intensity to her insomniac wanderings through the White House late at night where she sometimes encounters FDR to share a nightcap. She remarks of him that “He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day.” But, despite her hardened attitude which she acquired from such a challenging life, Lorena maintains a touching idealism and hope in her relationship with Eleanor that “Our love would create its own world and alter the real one, just a little.” It’s an important message and one which makes this historical novel all the more relevant today given that the US is more politically divided than ever and the echoed message of “America First” carries with it such stifling reactionary sentiments. “White Houses” gives us a portrait of the past which makes it clear how America has always been a nation where there are multiple meanings of the word home.