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American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

By Teabelly | Books | November 30, 2009 |

By Teabelly | Books | November 30, 2009 |

All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel is a fictional account of a first lady, closely mirroring the life of Laura Bush. I possibly wouldn’t have picked this up had I realized that, not being the greatest fan of old George, but it is an interesting read, following Alice Lindgren from childhood through to her life in the White House.

I don’t know much about Laura Bush, it must be said. I’m assuming that though she has been taken as Sittenfeld’s model, the majority of the book is fictional. As Sittenfeld herself has said, she can’t know what conversations the couple have had throughout the years. Certain things are fact though, and are used as the basis of Alice’s life; that during her teens Laura Bush was responsible for the death of a classmate; that her husband had a problem with drugs and alcohol, and then found God; that he went on to be one of the most reviled presidents of all time.

It is the death of her classmate, who in the novel is also her crush, that forms the focus of the beginning of the book, and is seen as the defining moment of her life. It leads to a relationship with the dead boy’s brother; an unwanted pregnancy; and an abortion. Later, as a librarian, Alice meets Charlie Blackwell, the feckless son of good stock, meandering around his life and in search of his destiny. There are issues from the beginning; Charlie is a Republican, Alice a Democrat. His family appears disapproving of Alice, especially his mother, and they have conflicting personalities. But the attraction between the two is clear, and though Alice often has misgivings about his character and behavior, she stays silent.

This silence is the crux of the novel. How responsible is she for her husband’s behavior, and his later presidency, as a wife and a first lady? How much influence can she be expected to wield? How much should she try to influence policy, when she was not elected, and when she and her husband have such differing views?

Alice is very sympathetic; she’s intelligent and kind and you do wonder sometimes how she ended up with Charlie. Although, it is a testament to Sittenfeld’s writing and character development that their pairing never seems unbelievable. That Alice loves her husband dearly is never in doubt. But I am not sure I like her all that much. She goes through a lot, and does so with grace, but I wished quite often while reading that she would grow a spine, that she would speak up, stand up to her husband, put forward her views, tell him off, give him some guidance — anything, rather than staying quiet. She says more than once that she doesn’t have to explain herself to the media, or to the general public, that they don’t own her and knowing the truth herself is enough. And then she goes on to explain, and explain, why she has done the things she has. I lost some respect for her at this point.

For such a large book it is a very quick and easy read, and generally enjoyable and engaging. It does feel rather light and fluffy in parts of its portrayal of Alice, before becoming a little over-long and tedious in others, and although I wouldn’t say Sittenfeld is an amazing writer, she does a decent enough job to make it worthwhile. It’s not a work that will sit with you afterwards, nor will it really give you any great insight into the Bushes’ marriage or his presidency, but it might make you ask questions and look elsewhere for the answers.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Teabelly’s reviews, check her blog, Taking the Long Way Round.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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