Studded with the real love letters between a young Theodore Roosevelt and Boston beauty Alice Lee—many of them never before published—If a Poem Could Live and Breathe makes vivid what many historians believe to be the pivotal years that made the future president into the man of action that defined his political life, and cemented his legacy.
Cambridge, 1878. The era of the Gilded Age. Alice Lee sets out to break from the norms of her mother’s generation. Women are fighting for educational opportunities and exploring a new sense of intellectual and personal freedom. Native New Yorker, Harvard student Teddy Roosevelt, is on his own journey of discovery, and when they meet, unrelenting currents of love change the trajectory of his life forever.
If a Poem Could Live and Breathe is an indelible portrait of the authenticity of first love, the heartache of loss, and how overcoming the worst of life’s obstacles can push one to greatness never imagined.
If a Poem Could Live and Breathe: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt’s First Love (Amazon US) (Amazon UK), is being released on Valentine’s Day, the same day that President Theodore Roosevelt declared “The light has gone out of my life” in 1883, when both his mother and his wife died within hours of each other. His mother had TB, and reports vary, but it’s believed that his wife Alice died of Bright’s Disease, or undiagnosed kidney failure. It was undiagnosed because she was also pregnant, and doctors at the time attributed her swelling feet and hands and discomfort to the side effects of pregnancy. Safely delivering a healthy baby girl, Alice then slipped away, but not before Theodore could make it home from Albany, where he was serving in the state legislature. He at least had a chance to say goodbye to his loved ones.
Theodore Roosevelt never talked about his first wife, allegedly not even to the daughter she bore and had her name. I always thought that any trace of Alice Hathaway Lee’s life with Theodore was destroyed by him, but surprisingly, some of their love letters survived, which is the basis for this story. The love story he never talked about.
I think the author was trying to emulate the literature of the day with her writing style as it’s very flowery and goes into great detail about what one wore and vivid descriptions of the settings. That made the beginning of the book seem awfully slow, with very little happening. The book is told from three perspectives: Alice in 1878, Theodore in 1878, and a jump forward to 1885, when Roosevelt was losing himself in ranching in the Badlands, reflecting back on his life with Alice Lee. I’m not sure I would have put the 1885 sections mixed in with the other chapters as the editors did; to me it makes sense to have that as an epilogue. But maybe they did that as a way of foreshadowing for those who aren’t familiar with Theodore Roosevelt’s life.
Roosevelt’s reputation is as a steam locomotive, just as the family motto: You go over, under, or through something, never around. This was true on family hikes, and it was how Theodore lived his whole life. A sickly child with terrible asthma in a day when there were few treatments, Roosevelt built up his body and his mind to offset his weaknesses and became a believer in the strenuous life. He was a naturalist, yet he was also a hunter. He was passionate and gentle to the women in his life, yet he loved wrestling and boxing. He was a mass of contradictions.
Alice Lee and Theodore’s romance is the ultimate slow-burn in this book. Literally chapters go on without any forward progress. However, once they actually go out on a date, things pick up considerably. Included in this book are excerpts from the actual letters exchanged between Theodore and Alice, which were great to read since most other biographies and documentaries rarely touched on them. The language is sweet and VERY flowery. And Theodore’s nicknames for Alice, like Princess, or Queenie, might make one giggle today, but they are a product of their time and very appropriate. The letters show that beside all that bluster that Roosevelt was known for, he was a terrible romantic, too.
I do have to say that even though the path was laid out during the courtship, I was a little taken aback by the wedding night scene. After all, I read a LOT about the presidents, both non-fiction and fiction, yet I got a little uncomfortable imagining my favorite president as a younger man in the throes of passion. However, for the regular reader, this shouldn’t be a problem, as the love scene is brief.
I enjoyed this book for the most part, except for the slow beginning. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Theodore Roosevelt like I am to enjoy this book. It’s a sweet, chaste romance set in the Gilded Age. The fact that it’s about real people is secondary. Highly recommend!
I received an ARC from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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