American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Published September, 2008 by Random House. Literary fiction.
Before I'd read American Wife, the only thing I knew about writer Curtis Sittenfeld was that she wrote a best seller called Prep and a short story called "Volunteers Are Shining Stars," in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers. I think I've been missing out on a major talent.
American Wife is best described as the fictional life story of one Alice Lindgren Blackwell, a midwestern woman who becomes First Lady of the United States. The character is modeled on the life of current American First Lady Laura Bush, although there are dissimilarities as well as resemblances. Alice is a decent woman- caring, intelligent and proper, and the cadenced, mannered prose that characterises much of the book reflects her carefully led life. Carefully led except for two incidents in her youth, one following close up on the other, where she ends the life of a classmate in a car accident and spirals through some trauma afterwards. And carefully led except for her love affair and marriage to one Charlie Blackwell, a raucous, raunchy blueblood modeled on Laura Bush's husband.
I don't know Sittenfeld's politics, but it seems pretty clear to me that the purpose behind writing American Wife is to meditate on the personality of Laura Bush through her fictional counterpart, and to try to figure out what would lead such a woman to marry such a man and support him through some very painful times in our country. Alternatively, Sittenfeld could also be trying to rationalize her and make excuses for her, and it is a credit to Sittenfeld's writing that I can't really tell which explanation fits, or if both are correct.
Either way, what I do know is that when I picked up American Wife I could hardly put it down for all of its almost 550 pages. Her prose is deeply engrossing and Alice is a sympathetic, principled woman; we follow her through the minutae of her life, from childhood through her sixties, through love triangles, tragedy, friendships, conflict, joy, bewilderment and finally acceptance. After living happily as a single woman and working librarian, Alice marries, has a child, and embarks on a life she could never have predicted with the chaotic but charming Charlie. Their marriage endures a crisis, there are secrets and scandals in Alice's own family, and then he becomes President and the outside world and its demands all but take over their life. The story bobs along at an even keel; at times I wondered where it was headed, but it helped me to think of the book less as a plot-driven page-turner and more as a deeply character-driven fictional memoir.
But then this begs the question- to whom is Alice talking? American Wife is not a standard memoir that a First Lady might publish after her husband's term in office has expired- the secrets she reveals are too intimate, the voice too familiar- but it's not written explicitly as a diary either. I think in the end Alice is talking to herself, trying to make peace with herself and her life as she enters late middle age. She tells us one last secret at the end, which says a lot about her heart; but then she warns us earlier how throwaway details can really be much ado about nothing, so perhaps we should take it with a grain of salt after all.
One last thing. I enjoyed reading the book quite a bit, but I agree with an assessment I read elsewhere that because the subject is so deeply tied to current events Sittenfeld has risked writing a book with a short shelf life. In other words, once the current administration is out of office it may become dated quickly. So read it now, while it's still fresh. Maybe Laura Bush will write her own memoir one day and we can see how much Sittenfeld got right. But then again, it's such a good character study that it may just stand on its own.
p.s. Have you reviewed American Wife? Please let me know in the comments because I'd love to know what you thought!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.