“White Houses” by Amy Bloom

White Houses by Amy BloomDid they or didn’t they? The question of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were more than friends has been a hot topic ever since their passionate letters were made public in the late 1970s. While historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declared that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” can never be known, others find the correspondence makes a convincing claim for Roosevelt’s queerness. Here’s an article featuring excerpts from a number of their more romantic letters. Sample: “Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms… Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”

The Hick/Roosevelt relationship has been explored in books like Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, as well as a play, “Hick: A Love Story.” Now comes Amy Bloom with a fictionalized account of their relationship, which definitely comes down on the “yep, they were lovers” side of the equation. (Franklin Roosevelt, in this telling, is having a long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, another allegedly-romantic pairing which has been debated by historians.)

Bloom’s novel is narrated by Hickok, who describes her rough upbringing—her mother died when she was quite young, and she left home at the age of 14, escaping her abusive father. She eventually became a successful journalist, the first woman to have a byline in the New York Times. Assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after Franklin had been elected governor of New York, Hickok found herself drawn to her subject. She began covering Eleanor full-time during Franklin’s first presidential campaign. Their relationship heated up when Hickok accompanied Eleanor on a train trip; by the time FDR was in office, it became increasingly clear that Hickok could not cover the administration objectively, so she quit her job with the Associated Press. At times, Hickok even lived in the White House, but in Bloom’s telling, loving Eleanor was not easy—the beloved First Lady always had many demands on her attention. Hickok describes herself as “the brave and battered little dinghy” to Eleanor’s “lighthouse.”

While most of the people in White Houses are historical figures, I’m pretty sure that the Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a key character in the book, is fictional. Fiske is a career diplomat and closeted gay man who is not above using a little blackmail to gain protection for himself; he pops up from time to time to beg Eleanor for a favor or threaten Hickok of the potential consequences if her relationship with the First Lady became public. “People didn’t see his homosexual self coming (unlike yours truly) and that bothered them. He didn’t look at all like that type of man, so everyone who liked him—smart and charming and so good at his job—pretended it didn’t happen, or that somehow it had happened but only due to a mix of bourbon and misunderstanding.” By today’s standards, the fact that Eleanor and Hickok were not able to live openly as lovers does seem sad, but Fiske’s story is ultimately far more tragic, a way for the author to shine a light on the genuine dangers of being gay in an earlier era.

White Houses is obviously not meant to be the final word on the subject, but it offers an interesting and poignant perspective on a relationship that continues to intrigue.

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“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

The ImmortalistsHaving a good airplane book is something I take very seriously. My library copy of Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists came in a couple days before I headed out on a cross-country trip. I read the first few chapters, and was sufficiently entranced to buy the ebook version for my flight. (I travel light, so I didn’t want to drag along a library hardcover.) It was a wise investment; I was so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even check my watch every 10-15 minutes, which I have an unfortunate habit of doing on long flights.

The Immortalists tells the story of the four Gold children, who sneak out of their Lower East Side apartment one fateful day in 1969 to consult a psychic. It’s summertime, and the siblings are bored; little do they know that what she tells them will have reverberations down through the decades.

Each of the children meets with the psychic individually, and she reveals to each of them the date of their death. The reader only follows one child, Varya, into the room; she is told that she’ll die on Jan. 21, 2044, when she’s 88. When she emerges, her siblings, who have already spoken to the seer, seem badly shaken by what they’ve heard.

After this prologue, we follow each of the Golds, starting with Simon, the youngest. He moves with his sister Klara to San Francisco in the late 1970s. Simon is gay, and you probably don’t need to be psychic yourself to figure out his ultimate fate. Then we focus on Klara, a budding magician; Daniel, a doctor who determines whether or not young military recruits are fit to go to war; and finally Varya, a researcher who works with primates to try to unlock the secrets of the human lifespan.

I probably enjoyed Klara’s section the most, since I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in becoming a successful stage magician, but each of the four segments is unique and moving in its own way. The Immortalists is a triumph of both character and plot.

The Little Paris bookshop by Nina GeorgeWhile waiting for a connecting flight, I spotted a woman who was just starting to read The Little Paris Bookshop. I was half-tempted to dissuade her, but while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea—I found it overly sentimental, not to mention at least 50 pages too long—it’s a book other readers have obviously enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015, and has been published around the world (the author is German, and the book was translated into English by Simon Pare.)

Bookseller Jean Perdu (the French word for “lost”—because he’s a lost soul!) sells his wares from a barge in the Seine. His specialty is matching people with their ideal book, “prescribing” certain volumes to his customers: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.” Naturally, the one person whose affliction Perdu cannot cure with a tome is… himself.

The 50-year-old bookseller has been miserable for 21 years, ever since his lover Manon left him. He even blocked the entrance to a room in his apartment, concealing it behind a bookshelf, because it was where he had spent time with her. When a new tenant with no furniture at all moves into his building, Perdu is persuaded to give her the wooden table from the hidden room. The table’s new owner discovers a letter hidden in a drawer—one sent by Manon after her departure, which Perdu had refused to open and then forgotten about. Of course, he finally does open it, and the contents of that 21-year-old missive change his life forever.

Manon was the kind of free spirit who rode horses naked (as someone who has ridden fully clothed, I can’t begin to imagine how painful that must be) and said things like, “Who knows, Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognized each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.” Most of the characters in this book share her impetuous spirit; another woman we meet later on jumps into a canal during a raging storm because she wanted to know “if my fear would tell me something important.” In fact, everyone seems to make crazy spur-of-the-moment decisions that somehow work out beautifully.

I certainly hope that the woman I spotted at the airport is far less cynical than I, and that she decided it was her destiny at work when she chose The Little Paris Bookshop to take on her flight. Personally, if I’d been reading it on a plane, I’d probably have tossed it aside and chosen instead to solve the Sudoku puzzles in the airline magazine.

“Celine” by Peter Heller

CelineI read a lot of good books, but every year, there are a couple that I find myself enthusiastically recommending to people. The latest book added to my “You must read this!” list is Peter Heller’s Celine, a beautifully-written and engrossing novel featuring one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Celine is in her late 60s, an old-money WASP who makes her living as a private eye. The only type of case she takes is reuniting parents and children. At her side is her doting and taciturn second husband, Pete, who adores Celine and yet finds her an endless source of mystery (just how did she become so proficient with firearms?).

Celine’s latest client is a young woman whose father disappeared many years before, leaving her an orphan (her mother drowned when she was very young). Supposedly, the man—a skilled photographer who often worked for National Geographic—had been fatally mauled by a bear, but his body was never found, just some smashed camera equipment, blood on a tree trunk, and a few discarded pieces of clothing. The client is convinced her father faked his own death, and if he is still alive, she wants him to meet his grandchild.

Because Celine’s own father disappeared from her life when she was quite young, after his divorce from her mother, she feels a particular connection to the case. She and Pete head for Yellowstone National Park, site of the alleged grizzly attack. In the meantime, Celine’s son Hank is conducting his own investigation into his mother’s teenage years, a time she does not like to speak about.

In lesser hands, Celine could have been cutesy or too precious, but Heller’s style is always sincere, wise and open-hearted, with a pronounced tinge of melancholy. Early in the book, we learn that Celine’s two sisters have recently passed away, and the book takes place in 2002, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (Celine is a New Yorker) have recently left their mark. As she and Pete walk down a street at night in a small town, under a starless sky, she reflects on her chosen career:

It occurred to her as they walked that they were looking for a father who had disappeared more than two decades ago, but that he had truly left his child’s life long before that, that the young woman had grown up for all intents and purposes fatherless. As she did. That finding him now might resolve something in the woman’s heart but would not change the essential sadness. And that was the business she was in. She had had to accept it long ago: that her job was enabling just such reunions. That though they could not change someone’s childhood, still—there was a great raw need in her clients to know their parents and to meet them again. There was something in that resolution that was very important. To the child, and often to the parent. She certainly knew about that. And sometimes they—the parent and the child—started again. Rarely did it work, but sometimes it did. And then a child would have a mother and a mother a daughter.

The saddest part was that parents would keep disappearing, and children would cry themselves to sleep night after night, for months, for years. And that mothers would have their babies taken from them before they had a chance to smell the tuft of soft hair, their ears, before they had a chance to say, “Oh how I love you! Forever and ever.” That the baby was taken before she had a chance to kiss her and wrap her properly in her arms.

There are a great many mysteries in Celine, some of which get resolved and a few of which don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book and not wishing they could spend more time with its fascinating heroine. Indeed, Heller has revealed in interviews that Celine is based on his late mother, Caroline. “When I started writing this book, I wrote with the hope to spend another year with her,” he said. His novel is an extraordinary tribute, and very much worth reading.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

commonwealthOne small decision can change everything, reverberating for decades to come. That is the central theme of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, her sprawling family saga which tracks the members of two different families that come together and fall apart, beginning in the early 1960s.

The fateful decision was made by Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Wanting to escape from his own large family, he opts to crash a christening party he’d heard about in passing, bringing a large bottle of gin as a gift. The child in question belongs to Fix Keating, a cop, and his movie-star-gorgeous wife, Beverly. An encounter between Bert and Beverly leads to a kiss, and the next thing you know, Beverly and Bert have left their respective spouses for each other, complicating the lives of six young kids (her two, his four). There is a move to Virginia, the commonwealth of the title, and a death that shakes the families’ world.

There’s no denying that Commonwealth is a beautifully-written book, with lots of perceptive things to say about families, aging, love, and the randomness of life, but I sometimes found myself wishing I’d drawn a family tree as I read, because there are a lot of characters to keep track of: Fix and Beverly, Bert and his first wife Teresa, their offspring, plus a gaggle of spouses, in-laws, stepchildren and lovers. Did there really have to be so many children? I would mutter as I tried to remember which kid came from which parents. The book demands attentive reading, as it does not follow a linear timeline.

In the end, it just sort of stops (I was reading Commonwealth on an e-reader, so I was unaware of how many pages were left), and I had the sense that Patchett could have kept going for another hundred pages, filling in details of characters we hadn’t come to know as well as others. (Beverly’s eventual divorce from Bert and subsequent remarriage to her third husband is mentioned in passing fairly early on, but I had forgotten about it and was surprised to encounter that spouse in the book’s final chapter.) If you’re a Patchett fan and plan on reading this book, do so with a pen and paper next to you and create a list of characters; I’ll bet you’ll find yourself referring to it several times along the way.

“The Inseparables” by Stuart Nadler

The InseparablesIf you read a lot of modern literary fiction, as I do, you tend to read a lot of dysfunctional-family novels. But what are the odds that I’d happen to read two dysfunctional-family novels in a single year that both deal with the aftermath of the publication of an infamous book about sex? (The Position by Meg Wolitzer was the first.)

The sexy volume that’s continued to reverberate through the generations in Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables is a novel that sounds like a combination of Fear of Flying and Valley of the Dolls—irresistibly trashy, in other words. Henrietta, now in her 70s, has spent most of her adult life trying to live down the notoriety of her book, which has remained a cult classic even as it’s fallen out of print. Finally, she has agreed to let the book be republished in a new edition, because after the death of her husband (whose failed restaurant left a mountain of debt in its wake), she desperately needs the money.

Henrietta’s daughter Oona is a workaholic surgeon whose marriage is falling apart; we also meet Oona’s teenage daughter Lydia, whose young life is being ruined by a topless selfie that’s been making the rounds online. Both of these storylines seemed less compelling to me than Henrietta’s (a chapter about the decline of her husband’s once-successful restaurant was particularly poignant); Oona falls into an affair with her couples therapist, which seems almost too over-the-top, and the indifference by authorities (by both police and school) to Lydia’s stolen photo, which is essentially child pornography, as she is underage, felt a little unrealistic. A few days after finishing The Inseparables, it is Henrietta’s story that has continued to linger in my mind.

“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The SympathizerFull disclosure: after finishing The Sympathizer, I decided not to review it. The reason is not because I had no opinions about it—I did—but I worried that my dislike for a book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, meant that I was somehow not intelligent enough to appreciate it. However, my friend Vallery, who didn’t care for it either, convinced me to write it up anyway.

I can appreciate the fact that The Sympathizer is an important book, a worthy examination of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. But I found it a real slog to get through. (I read it for my book group, which is why I didn’t toss it aside a couple of chapters in.) For one thing, there are no quotation marks, an affectation I find extremely annoying. The last quarter of the book is an extended depiction of torture. A set piece satirizing the filming of “Apocalypse Now” seems oddly irrelevant to the rest of the plot. And then there’s the writing. For example, we have this lengthy meditation on—let’s be frank—boobs:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold. But whereas women could look at us as much as they wanted, and we would appreciate it, we were damned if we looked and hardly less damned if we didn’t. A woman with extraordinary cleavage would reasonably be insulted by a man whose eyes could resist the plunge, so, just to be polite, I cast a tasteful glance while reaching for another cigarette. In between those marvelous breasts bumped a gold crucifix on a gold chain, and for once I wished I were a true Christian so I could be nailed to that cross.

The Sympathizer is the second war novel in a row to win the Pulitzer, following Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during WWII. All the Light is one of my top 10 favorite books of the past decade; it’s a big-hearted, beautiful story full of characters I cared deeply about. The Sympathizer, on the other hand, is the sort of book I wanted to keep at arm’s length (consider yourself lucky that I quoted the passage about cleavage and not the part where the narrator defiles a squid). Obviously a lot of people think this is a bona fide Great Book; I’m not among them, and I realize that may say more about me than it does about The Sympathizer.