White Houses by Amy Bloom: An American love story

Cover imageI’ve yet to read anything by Amy Bloom that I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Hopes were extraordinarily high, then, for White Houses but they were surpassed to the extent that this post is in danger of degenerating into one long gush. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bloom’s novella tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House.

Hick waits at Eleanor’s New York apartment on Washington Square just three days after Roosevelt’s death. Once caught up in a passionate affair, these two women still love each other dearly. It’s to Hick that Eleanor turns for comfort, solace and help with the sacks stuffed with condolence letters. Wary of accusations of bias, Hick gave up a promising career as a White House reporter when she took up residence, instead traveling the country and reporting to Federal Emergency Relief Administration on the desperate conditions wrought by the Depression. She’s no stranger to poverty but what she saw appalled her. Both Hick and Eleanor share memories of a childhood marked by the loss of their mothers but whereas Eleanor’s was cushioned by privilege, Hick’s was scarred by negligence and worse, bowdlerised to spare Eleanor’s sensitivity. When Roosevelt was elected, Hick joined them in her own spartan apartment  – Eleanor tacitly accepting her husband’s mistresses while he returned the favour. Hick remains long after their ardour has cooled. Theirs is a deep and lasting love which continues until Eleanor dies in 1962.

Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. Both Hick and Eleanor are vividly drawn: Hick’s sharp-eyed view of Eleanor’s need for approbation and moral probity – so hard for those around her to match and at times, so exasperating – contrast with her passion and tenderness for her lover. The storytelling is engrossing and evocative – Hick’s description of her brief time with a travelling freak show is a particular delight. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency, and the writing is sublime, often conveying a great deal in a couple of well-chosen words. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few favourites:

Eleanor’s love was like some shabby old footstool. Everyone used it without wanting it and no one ever gave it a moment’s thought

I wouldn’t call it nagging. It was like having the Statue of Liberty watch you have one beer too many

Sometimes, I love her more when I don’t even see her

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… …He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?

From its brief opening sentence to its gloriously poetic, heart-wrenching final paragraph, this is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of fiction. Bring on all the prizes.

23 thoughts on “White Houses by Amy Bloom: An American love story”

    1. She’s one of my favourite writers, Claire, and I’d say this one is the best so far. I shall have to find a hat to eat if it doesn’t grab several prizes.

  1. I haven’t read anything by Amy Bloom but this novella seems like the perfect place to start! I’ve been craving American general fiction of lately, so your review arrived on time.

    1. You absolutely do, and I’m delighted to have given you something to add to your list given the rate my own is expanding thanks to your novella month!

  2. I was in our local bookshop the other day and saw this on the shelf. I was drawn in by the cover and the title, picked it up, looked at it, liked the sound of it, sighed and put it back on the shelf. I am determined to read more of my TBR before buying anything new but this might do me in on my determination. It sounds wonderful.

  3. Great review although I didn’t finish the book. Bloom’s writing is outstanding–she drew me in quite well. I just couldn’t accept “her” Eleanor as “my” Eleanor. I liked Susan Wittig Albert’s Loving Eleanor more–more like “my” Eleanor. I also think her relationship with Nancy and Marion and their 3-way life at Vallkill was more interesting. We owe Hick a debt of gratitude though for helping create our legendary First Lady. Hick’s journalism was superb as are her young people’s nonfiction book. If so inclinded (and you may feel free to delete or skip!) here is a link to my review of the other Eleanor/Hick novel I mentioned. https://hopewellslibraryoflife.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/loving-eleanor/

    1. Thank you! I suspect I came to it knowing considerably less than you about Eleanor Roosevelt and so had a different take on it. Thanks for the link. I’ll see if I can get my hamds on a copy of Loving Eleanor.

  4. She’s coming up on BBC’s World Book Club, so I’m aiming to – finally – read Away. I’ve only read excerpts and a short story or essay (or both?) so far. But I am that much more intrigued now, learning that she such a favourite of yours!

    1. That’s lovely to hear! I came to her via her short stories which are well worth investigating. At the time I wasn’t the short story fan I am now but I knew she was a therapist and was intrigued by that. I’m sure she was a very good one – her writing is so empathetic.

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