White Houses was my latest book club pick, chosen by me. I felt a weird sense of pressure to enjoy the book on that account. But the best I could summon up in the end was a mild kind of appreciation.
It took me a while to pinpoint my disconnect.
The first person narrative was a start. I’m not philosophically opposed to first person as a device, but I have to feel a real connect to said person to go along for the first person ride (like the young narrator in Washington Black that I’m reading and loving right now). I struggled to feel that kind of affection for Lorena Hickok. I felt a tremendous amount of compassion for her horrific childhood and admiration for her ability to rise above it. In fact, that’s one of the human conditions I find most fascinating – in fiction and in real life. Why do some people with horrific childhoods, succumb to its sordidness, always the victim, yet others find a resilience and sense of agency to remake their adult selves? It’s the stuff of great story. A mix of genetic predisposition, environment, the power of education (usually), luck (sometimes) and a mentor/someone who believed in them all along (often but not always). All wonderful tools for a story-teller to play with. But Bloom didn’t really go there with Hickok’s back story. I’m still none the wiser about the how or why she overcame her ghastly childhood.
When a story is based on someone’s real life story, the fiction writer has some boundaries and proprieties that may restrict their creativity. And the reader (or this reader at least) often has some reservations and frustrations around what really happened and what’s made up. Which is my usual beef with fictionalised biographies/histories. I love a good story and I love narrative non-fiction, but combining the two just doesn’t seem to work for me. It seems to be a literary lesson I am slow to learn!
Second was the whole jumping around with time thing. Again, I’m happy to play with multiple timelines, but I need to know when it’s changing. The second half of the book lost it’s way thanks to so many unannounced jumps in my opinion.
Thirdly, the writing. I kept waiting for some sparkle that never quite arrived. The was a flatness, a dullness that sucked all the emotional possibility of the story. At first I thought this may have been a deliberate technique to illustrate the bleakness of Hick’s early life (which as I said above, I found very intriguing), but when the circus story, then the romance itself also failed to come to life, I concluded that the writing was just not working for me.
My fourth problem took longer to pinpoint, until I remembered my reaction to reading Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor biography about seven years ago. By the time I got to the end of the bio, I realised that I had come to strongly dislike both Franklin and Eleanor as people. I admired their politics and public service, but they treated the people who loved them and worked for them appallingly. They both made tremendous sacrifices and compromises to the do the good that they did do, but those sacrifices and compromises usually also sacrificed and compromised those around them.
Hickok’s story in White Houses brought all these thoughts flooding back.
A friend who read and loved this book, was moved by the descriptions of love, whereas I found it hard to see the love story at all. The love felt so one-sided to me. Not quite unrequited, more desperate and needy perhaps and completely controlled by Eleanor to suit her schedule and agenda. Hickok gave up so much to get the little crumbs of love and friendship that Eleanor handed out.
This one particular paragraphed moved me beyond words though,
I don’t care why the light burns. I think that even if you are both old ladies riding side by side on the second Avenue subway, with one of you going home to three grandchildren and a doddering husband, you can lock eyes, and remember when you weren’t. You remember that very pleasurable and surprising thing that was done to you by the wrinkly old bag of bones next to you and you breathe in memory the weight and the mortality and the sensible shoes are just costume, falling away, and your real selves rise up, briefly, dancing rosy and naked, in the middle of the subway car.
One paragraph in a whole book is not enough to sustain my interest though. I pushed myself to finish White Houses and resolved to never read any more books about Franklin or Eleanor!