Two weeks ago, I read American Wife--Curtis Sittenfeld's bildunsroman on a fictional Laura Bush. I'm a fan of Sittenfeld's, but this book is not like her previous ones, Prep and The Man of My Dreams. American Wife does not uncomfortably magnify those insecure feelings we’d rather keep hidden. That is both a credit and a demerit to the book—it’s far easier to read, less fraught with personal revelation, but perhaps not as memorable as her earlier works.
American Wife follows Alice Lindgren, a typical middle-class only child in a small town in Wisconsin, who eventually becomes Alice Blackwell, married to Charlie Blackwell, the 43rd President of the United States. It’s unmistakable that Alice and Charlie Blackwell are the alter egos of Laura and George Bush: they are the same age (although their individual birthdays are different), their courtship patterns follow the same course, she is a children’s librarian, he’s a rich playboy bopping around when they meet at a BBQ…I found the parallels between the characters and their real-life counterparts fun. If you know current events, the last chapter alone is very illuminating. But it’s also exciting to realize you spot Karl Rove’s alter ego before he’s Karl Rove, chuckle that Charlie ran as a “tolerant traditionalist” in 2000, that that election hinged on Florida.
American Wife has received a lot of press—there are spoilers out there too—and while the first 150 pages or so are fantastic, the story loses urgency once Alice marries Charlie. She is longer the passionate librarian, but a woman caught up in country clubs and that world is one that I was very eager to leave. But the book, especially the last section which focuses on the years Charlie is president, serves as a great understanding of the psychology behind the First Couple, why the administration has enacted the policies they have, how the history of the United States has unfolded under its current president. There is no need to know the details of the current administration, but a sense of history enhances the enjoyment.
Sittenfeld’s love of first ladies is evident in a 2003 Salon article she wrote, reviewing a biography of Laura Bush, and in her recent piece in Time, on Michelle Obama. I see in Michelle a type of woman who will be first ladies in the future—not what Laura Bush or Cindy McCain are, women of privilege. At least, I hope the country moves in that direction.
Full review on WitWar.