Then and Now, Coming Out in the US of A

White Houses – Amy Bloom Leah on the Offbeat – Becky Abertalli

Under our breasts and in our creases, we smelled like fresh baked bread in the mornings. We slept naked as babies, breasts and bellies rolling towards each other, our legs entwined like climbing roses. We used to say, we’re no beauties, because it was impossible to tell the truth. In bed we were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we’d never were: loved, saucy, delighted and delightful.’White Houses’- Amy Bloom

I just look at her. I just can’t believe I’m allowed to do this. I can just stare at her face without it being creepy. I want to memorise every inch of Abby – the shine of her cheekbones and the brightness of her eyes. There are tears in her lashes and her cheeks are sort of puffy. I don’t know how this girl can go from laughing to crying to kissing and back, and still come out of it looking like an actual moonbeam.’ ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ – Becky Abertalli

Such tenderness.

It goes without saying that it can’t be easy to come out and for centuries it had to be hidden. That’s still a necessity in many, many countries – but thankfully, here and America, despite Abbott and Trump, it has become a non-issue as far as the law is concerned. Not that it makes announcing it to friends and family any easier as a result.

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Of course, in mid-C20th America, the setting for ‘White Houses’, the option wasn’t there for either gender, but I suspect the authorities were tougher on the males. Naturally, getting away with it was much easier if you were the wife of the President. As stated, the FLOTUS was not the beauty, in the classic sense, she was in her youth by the time of her liaison with the lover in this semi-factual tome. But then, nor was that lover – although the latter blamed that on the unflattering photography of the era. Not that attractiveness is in any way important, except in that perhaps plainness doesn’t conform to male fantasy. In any case hubby, POTUS, was in a semi-open relationship with his secretary and those in the know, including the media, turned a blind eye. Wouldn’t happen in this age of shock-jocks and gutter media. In that period the White House kept its secrets closely guarded, including FDR’s paralysis. Eleanor was a much admired figure, even loved, by the general public; noted for her good works and lack of airs. Compare that to today. The two led separate lives – maybe that’s still relevant – and Mrs Roosevelt’s close companion, during the years Bloom is writing about, was former journalist Lorena Hickok. Despite the crowded first lady’s schedule, the couple do find time to be intimate.

The pair are from entirely different backgrounds – possibly accounting for the mutual attraction. Hick’s early years were hardscrabble with an abusive father. She ran away to join the circus in her teens, losing her virginity to one of the ‘freaks’ on display at a time she was fast discovering she had a way with the written word. That leads to her career – a career that had to be curtailed when she became too close to a powerful woman.

The novel is told in a hard-boiled style from the lover’s perspective. Most characters are historical, but there are a few invented ones such as Parker Fiske. He loses his cabinet position due to his sexual proclivities, perhaps pointing to a few double standards.

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This reasonably short novel is a compelling enough read, leading one to delve to deduce fact from fiction by sussing out other interpretations of the same tale.

Fast forward to the present and the YA book by Becky Albertalli (who found fame with ‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’), ‘Leah and the Offbeat’. This story is as contemporary as can be. I suspect its target audience will rush to it as they obviously did to the first novel, heightened by the fact that Simon is also a character in this.

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Leah is in her final year of high school, is a drummer in a band, is definitely not one of the in crowd and is potentially a talented artist, although the latter is kept well hidden. She is also coming to the conclusion that it is not only boys she is attracted to. In the heady weeks leading up to the prom Leah’s support group is fracturing over a racial comment by one of her cohort. It’s offended her to the core, although it was directed at another. Leah is outwardly feisty and opinionated, but inwardly torn between the lad who’s taken a fancy to her and Abby, the hot girl who is everything, it seems to her, she is not. As the group decide on their college options Abby and Leah are drawn together, especially once the former dumps her jerk boyfriend.

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As a read for a sixty-something fella, this wasn’t usual fare, but it carried me along to the end well enough. But girls of a certain age, as well as a discerning lad or two, will love it, as evidenced by the gushing but wholeheartedly felt positive reviews on-line. And if it helps even one young person struggling with their sexuality – well then, despite being a cliché, it’s worth it’s weight in gold.

Amy Bloom’s official site = http://www.amybloom.com/

Becky Abertalli’s official site = https://beckyalbertalli.com/

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