First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 August 2014
In the thick of the Great Depression, unemployed school teacher Iris McIntosh, penniless and starving, encounters Eleanor Roosevelt at a gas station. Touched by Iris’s story, the US first lady welcomes Iris into the White House to live and work as her assistant.
Yes, the premise of Jenny Bond’s second novel seems a stretch. And it is. That said, there are some satisfying moments of bustling action and dialogue, which serve as believable portrayals of life in the Oval Office.
The Roosevelts quite literally shelter Iris from the Depression. The degree to which this explains her fervent, almost unquestioning devotion to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies is one of the more interesting ideas in the book. Her affection for the president and first lady is compelling.
Bond has done well to capture the notorious community-mindedness of the Roosevelt administration and some ostensibly solid research has afforded the confident inclusion of a few real-life characters from the Roosevelt’s inner circle, such as journalist Lorena Hickok and adviser Harry Hopkins. Research aside, this historically flavoured love story is heavily peppered with implausible moments.
In fairness, the author’s intention is not to give a watertight account of the FDR years, but to blend fact with fiction. It is, after all, Iris’s story. What is frustrating is that, in a time when the White House was home to provocative feminist thinkers (which the story clearly acknowledges), Iris has all the makings of a fascinating and complicated protagonist, but spends much of her time focusing on her repetitive, if titillating, love life.
Two of Washington’s most accomplished men (Monty Chapel, one of FDR’s advisers and Sam Jacobson, a political journalist favoured by the president – both fictional) each fall unconditionally in love with Iris, more or less immediately.
A great deal of the narration delves into Iris attempting to decide to which of the two men her heart belongs. Despite many betrayals and periods of separation, both relationships are repeatedly and easily resumed and, as a result, these romances lack any real depth or tension.
Throughout her career, Iris is appointed co-ordinator of the civilian conservation corps for women, and adviser to Franklin Roosevelt on matters of constitutional law. However, not a single scene of the story unfolds in either the women’s camps, or at law school. Mention is made of the struggles Iris faces as a woman in a man’s world, but rather than explore this, the narrative opts to dwell on her flip-flopping heart.
In a moment of self-reflection, Iris admits she has lost herself in Monty and Sam. She sees that she has allowed her identity to be defined by her relationships with these men and resolves to focus on her career. In the very next chapter, however, she is preoccupied with the subject of her latest heart-flip, and the dinner she must prepare for him in order to profess her love. This lack of personal growth seems unlikely in someone who has risen up through the ranks of the White House with such impressive speed and nous.
There are some lovely moments when the story gets away from the Monty versus Sam debacle: Iris’s relationship with Eleanor (devoted protege) and Franklin (unlikely confidante) are tender and complex, and offer glimpses of genuine connection.
Woven into the story are chapters told from the point of view of White House cook Henrietta Nesbitt, who is often on the receiving end of FDR’s wrath for her refusal to stray from modest, Depression-appropriate cuisine. It would seem these cute asides are historically accurate, but ultimately they fail to establish a connection with the primary narrative.
This book is confusing. It has targeted and researched one of the most progressive and intriguing marriages in the history of US politics, and made it little more than the backdrop for a garden-variety love triangle.
Fans of popular romance, however, might well find this a satisfying read.