By Jennifer Levasseur
Amy Bloom’s new novel, White Houses, combines a pacey but cozy literary love story of heart-plucking longing balanced by realistic barriers—which hinge on mutable emotions, cultural restrictions, poor timing, bounds of duty—with clever banter and an irresistible peek inside a presidential marriage. At its core, though, White Houses is simply and powerfully an ode to lasting, shifting love.
Lorena Hickok, once the most popular woman reporter in America and confidant to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, grew up abused and neglected in the Midwest. After her mother’s death, the fourteen-year-old fled by train to take up housekeeping work, a stint with a traveling circus and finally became a reporter. She covered the Lindbergh baby kidnapping for the Associated Press and wrote about Roosevelt’s campaign until her growing friendship with Eleanor made objectivity impossible.
Told from the point of view of Hickok, known as Hick, White Houses flows with a dreamlike quality of someone remembering a time she longed for even as it was happening.
“We think we’ll remember it all and we remember hardly anything. Even when the car is only doing forty, it’s still going too fast,” Hick muses. “Neon-green streaks and bolts of flamingo pink blow up the sky on a winter’s night in Maine and we think—oh, we will never forget these northern lights, but we do.”
Hick leaves her beloved, hard-won profession to work for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and live in the White House, to be near Eleanor. While historians continue to quibble about whether Hick and Eleanor’s relationship was physical or one of fervent but platonic devotion, Bloom firmly rejects any diminishment of their complicated passion.
While we witness the novel as Hick’s beautiful elegy for what was and what might still be, she remains a steely reporter, one unwilling to twist the past to form a more beautiful present.
She recalls her reaction when Eleanor first requested her presence on a trip: “I was between girlfriends and between dogs. I packed my bag.” On that trip, the two begin to share intimacies, but Hick holds back: “People like when their griefs balance, when the sufferings can share the same stage. My heartache, your heartache. My illness, your illness. Not my broken arm, your mass murder.”
Hick’s realism and stoicism create an even more moving story because her clear-eyed devotion proves more rousing than any sentimental romance. The gruff pluckiness makes the sweet more precious. Hick playfully tells Eleanor: “I will pay you a million dollars to let me look at you.” She confides to the reader: “Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.”
Here they are, two ordinary women, neither great beauties, neither young, but their hungry desire for one another extends beyond the physical, beyond any immediate satisfaction. They know their love, in whatever form it takes, will lead to unfulfilled yearning, to loneliness, to fear, but they believe in its value, its necessity.
Bloom laces White Houses with gems about the nature of love, packaged in swoon-worthy prose. The final paragraphs left me in tears—for what I know is true in her words, and for all of those out there who haven’t experienced it.