Loving Eleanor: Book Review + Author Interview

Some stories need to be told at the right time. This is especially true for narratives about people breaking new ground or living outside of traditional societal norms.

LovingEleanorBookReviewToday, it’s not unusual for women to hold positions of power in the public sphere, or to be in leadership roles in the workforce. And, same-sex couples are now generally accepted—even celebrated—in modern America. But society was different in 1978 when Lorena Hickok’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt was unsealed at the FDR library. Over 3,000 letters documented the couple’s friendship and romance that spanned decades. A same-sex romance in the White House in the 1930s? Shocking.

But we live in a different era. Now, I think Susan Wittig Albert’s novel, Loving Eleanor, will be welcomed and cherished by readers. 2016 is the right time to tell this story. And it is, in fact, a story. The author makes it clear that Loving Eleanor is her own interpretation of the intimacy between Hick and Eleanor (ER, as she is nicknamed in the novel). [Scroll down to read my Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert. I mean, read the whole review—it’s great!—but don’t miss the Q&A at the end.]

Read all about it

Loving Eleanor charmed me on many levels. Susan Wittig Albert draws from history and an incredible letter collection to imagine how romance developed between Lorena Hickock and Eleanor Roosevelt in extraordinary circumstances. Lorena Hickock, or Hick, the first female AP reporter, first met Eleanor in 1928 during FDR’s bid for governor of New York. From their early interactions to their intimate affair in the 1930s to their friendship that lasted until ER’s death in 1962, the novel covers a lot of ground.

Before I opened the book, I knew the basic premise that Eleanor Roosevelt had a very close female friend that may or may not have been platonic. But this novel is much more than a history lesson or exposé. The writing is compelling and I was quickly wrapped up in the characters—how they found privacy in a political fishbowl, why they risked so much for each other, and the compromises they made to find a space for their unconventional relationship and ambitions.

Will you like it?

Do you like historical fiction? Do you like a fresh take on an old story? Do you like to learn about women succeeding and making a difference against the odds? If you like all those elements, then I believe you will adore this novel. I love historical fiction, and this book is certainly in my all-time favorites list.

I would be surprised if readers don’t find themselves rooting for Hick. While the author takes care to develop both women—what they feel, how they dress, their faults—it’s Hick that stuck with me. Growing up in poverty, Hick became a respected reporter on the national scene with a byline picked up around the country. Flawed, yes, but her combination of grit and warmth hooked me.

Is this a good book club pick?

I give a qualified yes. The author is skilled at bringing the women and the time period to life. From the nuanced writing to the fresh insights on the incredible poverty in the 1930s, there’s much to love and discuss. I believe the novel will spark rich conversations about historical opportunities for women, how attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed over time, and ways women still encounter challenges in the workforce and in their private lives. That said, conservative readers may not enjoy reading about a lesbian romance, in particular, an affair involving the well-loved (but perhaps not well-understood) historical figure of Eleanor Roosevelt. To each their own, but to me love is love is love.

Would it make a good gift?

This is funny, because I already have plans to purchase this novel for several friends. So, yes, I think Loving Eleanor is a great gift for lovers of history and well-behaved women that definitely made an impact. You only have a short wait. It’s scheduled for a February, 2016 publish date.

More to the story—Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert

Q. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Hick have complex, interesting personalities. If you were able to spend a day with either Eleanor or Hick, which lady would you choose, and why?

A. Oh, dear. I don’t want to choose! I’ll have both, please. But if I had to pick one, I think I’d choose Hick. I’d love to ask her what it was like to work in that AP office back in the late 20s, and I would very much like to know more about her later life, which isn’t well documented. She wasn’t perfect, but she was a very brave woman who rolled up her sleeves and made her way in a challenging world without a lot of help from others.

Q. Do you think Hick made the right decision to seal the letters, only to be opened several years after her death?

A. I do indeed—although I wish she’d left them sealed for 30 or 40 years, instead of just ten. I think the social climate would have been different. People would have been more understanding than they were in 1978. And it was really unfortunate that they had to be opened when Doris Faber was there. People shouldn’t write biographies about people whom they dislike—and Doris Faber disliked Hick from the moment she opened the letters.

Q. What access did you have to their letters? Were you able to handle the letters and read them at your leisure? If so, what was that like?

A. The letters are available to researchers at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, where I read many of them. (There are over 3,300!) Reading was like listening in on a long, intimate conversation, with fascinating references to people and places of the times. I read the letters with respect, remembering how profoundly ER has influenced so many of us and how Hick influenced, mentored, and supported her. As I mention in the reading list at the back of the book, some of the letters are also available in a published collection called Empty Without You, edited by Rodger Streitmatter.

Q. How did you decide to end your book? Why did you decide to not write about the women and their careers post-FDR?

A. I wrote about those post-FDR years, but not as part of the fiction; instead, I chose to tell the rest of the story in a non-fiction afterword. The focus of the fictional story was the years in which the two women were the centers of each other’s lives; after FDR’s death, when ER became “First Lady of the World” (in President Truman’s phrase), they moved in different orbits, around different centers. I wanted to emphasize that difference by telling that part of the story in a different voice—mine, not Hick’s.

Q. We live in a time now where same-sex marriage is legal and widely accepted. If ER and Hick had the luxury of today’s legal and social constructs, do you think they would have married after FDR’s death?

A. I don’t think they would have married at that point. If it had been possible to marry (FDR and the legal system notwithstanding), I think it would have occurred in 1933 or even 1934, when they were most intimately involved, and before ER began to find so many different ways to put her energies to work. If they had married then, I believe that they would have lived together for the rest of their lives, making accommodations for the needs and desires of each.

Q. Both ER and Hick were high-achievers. What accomplishments are most inspiring to you?

A. Both of them were extraordinarily brave. Hick was a ground-breaking journalist who came from a poor, unprivileged background and used her skills to write about strong women achievers, even as she was suffering from severe diabetes, at a time when the disease was so difficult to control. ER was a strong, ground-breaking woman who used her position to help others, while she fought her dragons—her deep doubts and fears.

Book review disclaimer

I received an advance reading copy of Loving Eleanor. I was not compensated in any other way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy

No Drama Guide to Choosing Books for Book Club

NoDramaBooks

Picture this: you’re at book club, the book discussion is winding down, you and your friends are on a second (or third) glass of wine, and your belly is full of bruschetta and mini key lime tarts. Then someone notices the time. Now you need to wrap up the evening and pick the next book. Depending on your group, this could go down smoothly (like the wine bottles you just drained) or cause trouble. As a veteran book-clubber I can suggest a few ways to pick books without wrecking the vibe.

Pick a pleasing process

Book club isn’t just about the books, ambience, and conversation. A well-run book club is organized with easy to understand rules. One cornerstone is how you pick the books. You have several options:

  1. The host or organizer of each meeting chooses the book. Some book clubs like to link the book with the host. On a positive note, this cuts down on debate because what the host decides wins. However, not everyone likes the pressure of suggesting the next book. Often this method involves scheduling the hosts for the next six to 12 months. Each host is responsible for sending their pick to the group in advance.
  1. Like a fantasy draft, pick a year’s worth of books all at once. This is my favorite method. Everyone comes to the meeting with two to three book suggestions with summaries. The group gets to weigh in on all the selections and choose the next eight to 12 books. Often, this means everyone gets at least one of their picks in the lineup. Plus, when you select a batch of books in one sitting it’s easier to mix up the genres. Do you really want to read three slavery novels in a row? Could you stomach more than two dystopias a year? You don’t have to be too methodical, but it’s nice to balance the choices. And picking books in advance can be cost effective because you’ll have plenty of time to reserve books through the library. Or you’ll have time to swap books. On the negative side, it’s hard to integrate new members. And, if a great book comes along you’ll have to wait several months to add it to the list. Still, I prefer the all-at-once approach because the book selection discussion is concentrated in one meeting and the rest of the year just flows.
  1. Select the next host and book at the end of meeting. If you prefer to go with the flow and be open to new releases, you might like selecting books one or two at a time. When you wrap up the current book you can move right into discussing what you want to read next. You get a lively open discussion and any member can suggest the next book with consensus or a loose vote deciding the next books. This works well if you all have similar tastes or don’t mind a little back-and-forth debate. If you choose this method, the leader may want to interject every now and then to make sure some of the quieter members get heard. And be prepared with a quick summary and rating to back up your suggestions.

Other rules—frequency, spoilers, hosts, and meeting spots

You’ll need to decide how often you meet—usually every four to six weeks works well for most groups. I’ll say that my first group of single ladies enjoyed meeting once a month and rarely had problems finishing books. Once babies entered the picture, we met less often so that we had more time to read the last chapter. So, consider your group dynamics when setting up the meetings.

On a related note, it’s a good idea to set up a ground rule on spoilers. I personally like a general guideline of not requiring everyone to finish the book as long as they don’t mind when the discussion turns to plot spoilers and the ending.

Now, who will host and when? If you don’t link the hosts to the books (see above) then the easiest way is to set the host schedule six months to a year in advance.

Where will you meet? It’s up to your group to decide if you want to meet in homes, at restaurants or bars, coffee shops, or public spaces like libraries or community centers. Hosting at homes is often more convenient as long as roommates, kids, and partners can find safe places to hide from raucous voices and hooting laughs. It’s also a good idea to be clear about the hosting expectations. In my first book club everyone (including the hostess) brought either a beverage or a dish to share. Often, most brought a bottle of wine and an appetizer. Another approach that also works well is for the host to provide the beverages and guests bring an appetizer or dessert.

Bars, restaurants, and coffee shops are decent alternatives to meeting in homes. It’s good to get out of the house, and even better to avoid cleaning your house. But this depends on your group’s budget. Not everyone can afford to go out on a regular basis. If budgets are a concern, consider coffee shops. Check the seating options and noise level. Of the three, I think coffee shops with meeting rooms are the best. Restaurants and bars can get noisy and may not have a good space for discussion—it’s hard to engage everyone in a discussion at a long table.

Not necessarily by the book

Here’s the deal. There are so many ways to run your book club. In the end, you’ll know what works well for the group. If your meetings start to thin out or it feels stale, try mixing up how you pick the books or find a new place to meet. And, consider following authors on social media channels—some are willing to Skype with book clubs.

In the end, it’s all about the books and friendship—and the snacks. We just finished People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and the Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Next on my reading list are Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert (scheduled for publication February 2016) and Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.

What’s next on your reading list?