1954, the war in Korea is over but there are still some soldiers waiting to see their big star come for a short visit: Marilyn Monroe. Alice J. Kim, working as a translator for the Americans, is one of the few Koreans fluent in both languages and who could accompany the blond film star on her tour. But with the arrival of Marilyn also comes somebody else Alice had almost forgotten: Joseph, her former lover who turned out not to be a missionary but an American spy. Alice thought she could leave her past behind, like the war, just bury it all under the ruins and build a new life. But now, it all comes up again.
Other than the title suggests, the novel is not really about Marilyn Monroe and her visit to Korea. She appears as a character, yes, and I found she was nicely depicted, a sensitive woman lacking all kind of allures one might assume. However, first and foremost, it is a novel about Alice and the two loves she had: first, Min-hwan, a married man working for the government, and second, the American Joseph. None is the loves is meant to last and the political developments in the country add their part to these unfulfilled loves.
What I found interesting was the insight in the possible life of a Korean woman at the time of the war. I have never read about it and this part of history is not something I know much about. Nevertheless, the book could not really catch me. Somehow I had the impression that the two stories – Alice’s one the one hand and Marilyn’s visit on the other – did not really fit together and especially the last seemed more a feature to make the story a bit more interesting by adding a big name.
„These sleeping pills are a better friend than diamonds for those of us who want to forget their past.“
Parallels between Marilyn and Alice are evoked: a past they want to forget, well-known lovers who in the end always decide against the affair and for their wife, the change of name to start anew – but the link is too weak to work for me. Unfortunately, Alice also remains a bit too distant, too hard to grasp and to really feel sympathy for her and her fate.
After the hard time they have gone through in their relationship, Caroline and Francis need a vacation, best without their son Eddie. A house swap seems to be a good idea so they leave Leeds for a week in the suburbs of London. Somehow the house is strange, it looks like nobody actually lives in there, it is absolutely impersonal, almost clinical. But the woman seemed to be nice enough to let her into their own apartment. When Caroline receives a strange message on her cell phone, she is alarmed: did something awake the ghosts of the past? Did her ex affair Carl get in contact again? And who is this strange neighbour Amber who seems to observe them and behaves in a very strange way when she comes to visit them late in the evening. Caroline can sense the danger but she doesn’t know where it is really coming from…
The novel starts at quite some low pace and admittedly I was a bit annoyed because I couldn’t make sense of a lot of things at the beginning. It was obvious that Francis and Caroline had some problems in the past, she had an affair with a colleague, he was addicted to pills, but since this had happened obviously two years before, I didn’t quite understand the relevance of all this for the house swap. And there was this voice talking to Caroline, but it was not clear where it was coming from. I do not really like to be in the dark and not understanding anything.
However, the further you get in the novel and the more you understand, the more thrill you feel and the better the plot gets. Of course you are supposed to run in the completely wrong direction with the assumptions of what is behind all this – eagerly I did – just to learn then that it is not only much more complicated, very cleverly constructed, and also a lot more dangerous for the characters than you would have assumed.
“The House Swap” is a fantastic thriller as soon as you get over the first few pages. It can surprise and offers an especially interesting psychological aspect which is only revealed towards the end.
Life does not endow much to young Lorena Alice Hickok. When her mother dies, her father sends her away and she has to make her way on her own. Thanks to her stubbornness and perseverance, Lorena becomes one of the first woman journalists of the United States. In 1932, she works for Associated Press and reports on Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s electoral campaign. This is when she meets Eleanor for the first time. They women fall for each other immediately and this, Lorena gets closer to the famous couple and finally becomes Eleanor‘s lover.
Based on the known facts, Amy Bloom tells the story of two unorthodox and progressive women of the 1930s. It is especially Lorena who is an extraordinary character. She is not particularly charming, nor very attractive at the first glance, nevertheless, there is something fascinating about her, her independence makes her stand out and her courage and self-confidence irritate the men around her.
On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt is an outstanding first lady. Educated in the best boarding schools and acquainted with the manners of the high society, she moves smoothly around the rich and famous. When she entered a room, all eyes were on her. Yet, this did not prevent her husband from betraying her and obviously, she was aware of this. His lovers lived under their roof and Eleanor could watch them closely. But, had Franklin and Eleanor lost interest, they could be awful, nasty people.
Amy Bloom unveils a scandalous affair and tells the story of a woman, or rather two women, who followed their instincts and thus were quite ahead of their time.