White Houses, Amy Bloom, author; Tonya Cornelisse, narrator
I thought the novel would be more about Eleanor than Lorena Hickok, however, it seemed to me that it turned into a book about alternate lifestyle love affairs more than anything else. Between Parker Fiske and Lorena Hickok, the characters alternated between tawdry and sympathetic. I would have preferred the novel to be in the first person of Eleanor Roosevelt, not Lorena Hickok who lent a crass and foulmouthed image to their relationship. I learned little from the book, other than the fact that Lorena was abused, unhappy and pretty much lived off Eleanor. I had never heard of Eleanor described as a beauty, as she is in the book, but her sexuality was always in question. I knew FDR was beloved. I had a better opinion of Eleanor prior to my reading than after reading it so I need to do some more research into her life. I always admired her and wanted to be as strong and dedicated to helping others as she seemed to be. Lorena’s picture of her is of a self-interested person, not as devoted to the cause of others as I had been previously led to believe, i.e., that she was the kindness and compassion behind FDR, and when he wasn’t compassionate, she had failed in her effort to make him so.
Moving back and forth in time, I learned little about the relationship between FDR and Eleanor, a little about his relationship with his secretary, Missy LeHand, but mostly about the life of the rather crude Lorena. She made Eleanor seem as tasteless as she was. It disturbed me to think that Eleanor fell for someone so low-class, who pretty much went from bedroom to bedroom, who spoke like a truck driver and behaved like a bull in a china shop, at times. Also, I don’t believe that their relationship was as openly gay as the author made it sound since I never heard a whisper about it as I grew up. It was only in my adult world that it was even suggested. Eleanor was a paragon of virtue and goodness to most people, as a matter of fact, I always thought that if I could be anyone, I would like to be her. Now I am not so sure of my choice.
Lorena Hickok is portrayed as a bit crass, openly lesbian, and arrogant and, on the other hand, as the sensitive side of Eleanor, as the one who encourages her to reach out and help others. In the time of their relationship, over several decades, I would have thought their relationship would have been handled by each, a bit more delicately. Certainly today, in light of the way varying sexual choices have become normalized, the book could have been kinder about their descriptions, at least, although I did not need, in this book or others, with heterogeneous relationships, detailed descriptions of their lovemaking, even when handled in a delicate manner. That is for the bedroom, and I believe the bedroom should be private. It is a private space.
So, Lorena was turned out at the tender age of 13, after her mother’s death. She briefly went to live with a friend whose mother helped her. She obtained menial jobs, worked as a nanny, even worked with a circus. She was a cook, a maid and even a thief. She did whatever was necessary to survive. There was a brief period, until she could run away from her father, a terribly selfish and brutal man who sexually abused her, when she was his cash cow for whatever she could earn. She eventually becomes a journalist, although, I am not sure what exact route really brought her there, and found herself in a relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt which prompted her employment and move into the White House.
The portrait of Eleanor is not pretty. She is unhappy, disappointed with FDR, seems to sleep around a bit and is not able to deal with his illness well, or his shenanigans, although from the book one gets the idea that both she and FDR had their own idea of fidelity and living with each other compatibly.
I am not sure what message the book wished to send; perhaps it was just the story of Lorena Hickok with the White House as a backdrop to make it more interesting.