President-Adjacent | Historical Fiction About the First Ladies and Their Circles

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt (and Roosevelt’s friend Mary McLeod Bethune) take center stage in these historical novels.

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt (and Roosevelt’s friend Mary McLeod Bethune) take center-stage in these historical novels.

Benedict, Marie & Victoria Christopher Murray. The First Ladies. Berkley. Jun. 2023. 400p. ISBN 9780593440285. $28. F

Murray and Benedict (The Personal Librarian) team up again with this novel told in alternating viewpoints by two formidable women. In the United States, in 1927, segregation is the law of the land, no matter what the actual law says. One of the fiercest proponents of equal rights, Mary McLeod Bethune, meets a woman who will herself become a strong proponent of equality, among many other projects: Eleanor Roosevelt. Over the ensuing years, through the Great Depression, and the gubernatorial and presidential terms of Eleanor’s husband Franklin, Mary and Eleanor forge a great alliance of minds and an unshakable bond of sisterhood. Readers will experience events of the late 1920s to late 1940s as they affected the main characters. Both women face personal hurdles, doubts, and negativity, but in the end, they stand strong. While complete desegregation was still a dream away, these two could be proud of the work they accomplished, the foundation upon which the next steps were built. VERDICT Those who enjoy stirring historical fiction, as well as fans of The Personal Librarian, will find Benedict and Murray’s latest collaboration compelling.—Pam O’Sullivan

Wood, Tracey Enerson. The President’s Wife. Sourcebooks Landmark. Aug. 2023. 352p. ISBN 9781728257846. $27.99. F

In her third fictionalized biography (following The War Nurse), Wood focuses on World War I and the creation of the League of Nations. After socialite widow Edith Bolling Galt marries President Woodrow Wilson in 1915, she realizes that all her personal accomplishments must fade away for her to become “an important man’s wife.” With this transformative goal, Edith looks after her beloved Woodrow until his death in 1924. Early on, she becomes his trusted partner in the West Wing, helping with correspondence and eventually with weighty decision-making. When he has a paralyzing stroke in 1919, she aggressively comes to his aid, allowing only the most urgent matters and people to disturb his recovery. Wood does not stint on describing the circumspect charms of the Wilsons’ romantic relationship. Their private lives play out against a backdrop of women’s suffrage, vicious partisan politics, and their racism. Especially vivid are Edith’s prickly reactions to the influential Colonel Edward House and the despised Henry Cabot Lodge. VERDICT Wood’s book is a stately and dignified account that is beautifully leavened by intimate glimpses of Edith and Woodrow in their happiness, grief, anger, and optimism.—Barbara Conaty

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