On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”
A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.
As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?
In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry–a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including Rodham, Eligible, Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland, as well as the collection You Think It, I'll Say It. Her books have been translated into thirty languages. In addition, her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post Magazine, Esquire, and The Best American Short Stories, for which she has also been the guest editor. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Vanity Fair, and on public radio's This American Life.
Rarely am I so repulsed by a book while still able to honestly say that it wasn't completely awful. I can't ignore the fact that Curtis Sittenfeld (a woman by the way. I didn't look at the picture in the book jacket and had a male author writing this in my head for well over half the book) creates one of the most interesting and well-developed characters, Alice Blackwell, for a novel that I have read in a while. The creepy part of that is she modeled Alice after Laura Bush, flagrantly so, and I'm left feeling it's all unfair somehow.
I've always enjoyed historical fiction. I've given high praise to authors who seem able to "resurrect" actual historical figures and infuse life into them by placing them in dynamic relationships and creating a voice with conversations. Perhaps the historical figures need to be dead before writing about them, because when Sittenfeld takes the same liberties with Laura Bush, fictionalizing her actual history, I'm left with is disgust at Sittenfeld's disregard for her privacy, her public position not to mention the actual truth and have a very strong urge to dismiss this book as gossipy garbage.
Sittenfeld must have expected reactions such as mine. From it's charged release during last year's Republican National Convention, the book has been criticized by many, mostly Republicans, as being salacious and untrue - two charges Sittenfeld herself agrees with. Well...maybe not the salacious part, but she certainly included enough sex to keep even the fluffiest of beach readers happy. Doing so didn't give the book an honest quality but it did manage to make it feel trashy. She tried hard enough to portray Charlie Blackwell as close to the general media's version of George W. Bush that the otherwise normal trash becomes a downright disturbing image. I wish I could scrub my brain.
But not all of it is tawdry and in poor taste. Alice is so...real, in both her motivations and actions that if she were completely fictional my fingers would be tripping over themselves typing, "just so real and complex. So full of depth." As a result, I feel like a hypocrite for being so turned off. After all, are any characters truly "made up?" It seems to me that most authors use real life subjects as inspiration for their characters, so if the author acknowledges this, and even leaves that inspiration exposed and traceable, should they get less or more credit for being authentic?
When I finished reading, all I wanted to know was, "How much of this is true?" Enough of the events in Alice's fictional life are documented facts in Laura Bush's own that it seems more true than it is. In an interview Sittenfeld gave, she claims 85 % of it is fiction. That only the major events in each of the book's four sections (accidentally killing a classmate of hers in a car accident during high school, being a librarian and meeting her husband at a BBQ, having a husband who bought a major league baseball team, and being married to the President of the United States) are true and everything else is speculation and "what if"s.
I guess that's fair but it still doesn't seem like it. For a book to be written about an actual First Lady, a human being entitled to the same dignity we all deserve and a woman who most of America holds in high regard (even the author herself admits that she's fascinated by her), and to speculate about private things like her sexuality, her commitment to her husband, an abortion and drug use, and dress it up as fiction to avoid being charged with slander and libel seems cowardly.
The author claims her intention was not to expose Laura Bush but to write what life might be like if you happened to marry a guy who went on to become President of the United States. If she had managed to write that, and leave out her obvious bias for Laura Bush and against President Bush - she might have succeeded in writing something thought provoking and brave. While it may be thought-provoking, it certainly isn't brave...it's cheap and dangerous. Sittenfeld may have opened my eyes to the price and path of fame, but she did so at the cost of my own respect for her.
I'm a recent fan of Curtis Sittenfeld. I hadn't read any of her work until I read Prep, but once I finished it, I wanted to read everything she wrote. I was doubly intrigued when I found out that the protagonist of American Wife is a very thinly veiled Laura Bush.
For the most part, I enjoyed American Wife. The first three sections were so engaging that I never wanted to put the book down. Alice Blackwell is the kind of character you wish were real. I found myself feeling like I were in her kitchen, listening to her stories over a cup of coffee. The Alice Blackwell in these sections is a woman that is wonderfully complex and interesting. The real magic is that all the hype about the character being modeled after Laura Bush completely disappeared.
However, that complexity gets lost in the last section. If there was any doubt that Alice is Laura and that Charlie is George W, it gets thrown out the window immediately as Sittenfeld presents the Blackwells with the same history as the Bushes: the controversial 2000 election, the terrorist attacks, the failed war, even a grieving father that protests the war by camping outside the White House. At that point, I feel the book lost some of its magic for me. The prose got much more expository and the story turned heavy handed. I wish the story and its characters had maintained the same complexities it did in its earlier sections.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Boy did my opinions about this book change as I went along. At first I found it more of a pulpy beach read. As it went along, it got into some deeper issues and I found myself thinking about a lot of the issues that Sittenfeld raised. I can appreciate the fate of a woman who would prefer her husband not running for a political office being forced to go along. The thoughts and discussions about how much to do, what to support, etc. rang very true. As did Charlie’s comments about having to be constantly on guard, even with friends, about ulterior motives.
It’s not giving away any secrets to say that Sittenfeld’s inspiration for Alice and Charlie were Laura and George W. Bush. But the problem with that is that I could only picture their faces, despite her numerous comments about how good looking Charlie was. I was never a fan of GWB, but I always felt Laura was a true lady. So, reading the sex scenes with Laura’s face for Alice was akin to learning as a child that your parents have sex. I did not want to picture Laura Bush having an orgasm. I also found it unfair, if that’s the right word, to base your characters on real people but then say 95% of the book is fiction.
Initially, I didn’t really find Alice an engaging character. I’m pretty opinionated, so I had a struggle in accepting someone so willing to sublimate her own beliefs for “love”. Yet as time went on, and Charlie rose up the political ladder, I appreciated more what she was dealing with. (It also reminded me what a dynamo Barbara Bush was to be so outspoken.)
Final answer? This is really two books. The first half disappointed me. The second half made me think. I didn’t love it, I didn’t really like it all that much. But it raises some intriguing ideas.
As she did with Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld tackled privilege (in general) and, to a lesser extent, white privilege, in this sweeping novel. American Wife is based loosely on the life of Laura Bush--"loosely" being the operative word. Sittenfeld took the most notable events in Bush's life and embellished to create a compelling literary fiction with drama, tension, and, most of all, feeling. Her embellishment also drew a little from Laura Bush's mother-in-law, Barbara Bush. The combination works perfectly. The Laura Bush of Sittenfeld's imagining--a character she named Alice Blackwell--has Laura Bush's politeness and kindness (and, at times, blandness) and Barbara Bush's Democratic views alongside her husband's Republican ones. I always wondered how Barbara Bush could reconcile being married to someone with views so different from her own, and Sittenfeld offered a window into that, showing how it's hardly a straightforward reconciling.
Alice Blackwell comes from a humble WASP background, an only child who lives with her loving parents and cool, with-it grandma. She marries Charlie Blackwell, also from a WASP background but vastly more privileged. Sittenfeld depicted well the culture shock of marrying into such a family, and one of the best scenes involves a family gathering with the Blackwell clan, ebullient to an almost aggressive degree, and shallow. These are people living in a bubble with a black maid whom they consider family but who sees the reality and regards their wealth with quiet disdain.
Sittenfeld fashions characters in her stories with startling vividness. Everyone who plays any kind of significant role in American Wife leaps off the page so I could hear them and see them in all the unique ways that make them them. I could see their particular gait, the slightest expressions on their face, all body language. I could hear the amused twang in Charlie Blackwell's voice without Sittenfeld actually saying he has a twang. I could feel Alice Blackwell's generosity and warmth.
Sittenfeld doesn't just write stories. She writes with intention. She writes to entertain but to force contemplation--and she does it without being heavy-handed. She has a message, but she communicates that in a way that feels totally organic to her plot; it always makes sense. American Wife is more than 500 pages, and every page was needed to establish a solid foundation for the story's main takeaway. As is true of Prep, what Sittenfeld was trying to say with American Wife is undeniable.
This is the strongest fiction story about privilege that I've read--and, with a major plot point that's tear-jerking, one of the best meditations on tragedy and bereavement. On that point, Sittenfeld presented shockingly good insight into the stickiness of grief. Many authors compartmentalize it: A tragic something happens; the character mourns; and the story moves on with no reference to the tragedy, as if human beings are automatons who mourn for a set period and then are just fine. Sittenfeld understands that major grief cannot be encapsulated; in an instant, it leaves an indelible mark, informing future decisions and way of looking at the world.
American Wife is more than meets the eye. Despite its story line of a woman who goes on to become First Lady of the U.S., it's not overwhelmingly political. It's merely a story about the complexity of being human. Anyone who's lived, with all of life's ups and downs, will relate.
As I said in my comments when I posted this book to my "Currently Reading" list, I've "never read Curtis before but an semi-obsessed with novels about First Ladies and First Daughters. Plus, I love wedding gowns."
That's right, I was suckered in by the wedding gown! But come on -- it's a luscious dress, like a mound of whipped cream sprinkled with sugar. And truly, when I had a chance to read the ARE, I couldn't say no, since I have heard only good things about Curtis's stuff.
There must be something wrong with me, because I did not enjoy this book, and the more I think about it, the less I like it. I started reading and I was excited, this Alice Cole character was promising, she seemed sincere and real. Even Charlie Blackwell was a likable enough meat-eater, despite his privledged background and carefree arrogance, because we got to know him through Alice's eyes., who loved him despite herself.
I think I began to feel jipped when I realized there wasn't going to be an elaborate wedding scene in the novel, that Alice was never going to wear the wedding gown (or anything nearly like it) pictured on the book jacket. That isn't to say she doesn't get married.
Ultimately, two things turned me off of this novel. First, I realized I was reading a highly fictionalized account of Laura and George W. Bush's relationship, and frankly, I don't care about them or their relationship. I would have liked this book more had it been about some completely faux, wholly invented presidential marriage.
I read this book through to the end, because I had faith that Alice would do something dramatic, she'd do something to win back my respect, that would remind me why I liked her in the first place. But, ultimately, even her grandest gestures, and her most private, at a potentially pivotal point in her life, brought her right back to the status quo, to towing the line for her husband's administration and leadership. Her self-relfection and explanations were thin, and to me sounded more like justifications. Ultimately, I didn't like Alice Blackwell, the American Wife, and resented Curtis for having talked me into spending so much time with her (550 pages worth).
I'm sorry. Clearly, I'm not the right reader for this book.
The first 439 pages of this novel merit 5 stars. Alas! When our American wife makes it to the White House, the story falls flat on its face.
Anyway, this is the engrossing (and somewhat trashy) tale of Alice Lindgren Blackwell, future first lady. Growing up in a small Wisconsin town, Alice has a good life. She is an only child who lives with her mother, father, and grandmother. Her father has a job at the bank, her mother is the perfect housewife, and her grandmother is an eccentric intellectual. Alice is beautiful and bookish, and as sweet as can be.
But things change when Alice is in a car accident, an accident in which she is responsible for the death of a classmate. This is where her life takes a sordid turn!
I won't give away the rest of the plot. Everyone knows that this story was loosely based on that of Laura Bush. It's fun to keep that in mind while reading, particularly when she meets her future husband, Charlie Blackwell.
Alice is very likable, and you cannot help but to become involved in her story. The plot is quite engaging and only becomes stale when she actually moves into the White House.
Even a couple hundred pages into this Laura Bush inspired novel, I wouldn't have rated it 5 stars. It felt like a bland pudding of a book, soothing, but over-stuffed with stultifying detail of Alice's daily life. And Alice? Passive, timid, meek, blank, diffident, weak....infuriatingly undecided. Yet. As I read (listened), my understanding of her deepened and expanded. I never warmed to her callow husband Charlie, but I began to get to know and care about Alice.
And soon, I couldn't wait to get back to my audiobook - finding household chores or going on extra walks so I could listen. I wanted Alice's voice in my head. What had felt banal began to feel nuanced and subtle.
Sittenfeld has accomplished something brilliant here. She has taken the scaffolding of a public figure's life and imagined it in such a way that it feels profound. It could be Laura Bush. Or not. It doesn't matter. The title American Wife is perfect. I won't forget this book.
This book is a fabulous read -- and as far as I can gather, inspired by a sentiment I can understand well: Fascination with Laura Bush. I certainly don't share enough fascination to have written a novel about her, but even from my own experience of meeting her VERY briefly, she is incredibly NICE. So the premise grabbed my attention.
In the novel, this Laura-esque character is a bit of a contradiction -- a true free thinker and yet an obedient wife and first lady. At times it is hard to square, but I'll give Curtis Sittenfeld a break on this one, because I really love the character nonetheless. And she even does a quite generous job with the George-esque character, finding a narrative that makes him both a dufus and intensely charming -- to the point that we can almost understand how he might manage to win the presidency.
Wow. One of the best books I've read this year. Just forget what you might have heard about this book being a mirror of the life of Laura Bush (it is, but ...), it's really about the life of one woman, and purely on its own merits as a novel, it’s moving, thoughtful and wonderfully wrought. The author gives Alice (and Charlie) complexity, hopes and fears — and lives, even if their lives (in the White House and before and after) aren’t like ours. She empathetically details the burdens and isolation of being famous, the doubts and regrets people carry with them through their lives, and the challenges that married couples face over the years. Sweeping and at the same time intensely personal, “American Wife” explores the most intimate parts of Alice’s life and marriage with a piercing realism that captures the height and depth of emotions without ever straying into melodrama. It’s one of those rare books that when you have to put it down for a while, you wonder what the characters are doing while you’re gone. And when you put it down for good, it’s like saying farewell to a dear friend.
I will have to go for two stars on this one. This 'biographical fictional' tale of Laura Bush started out five stars, but finally fell flat in the last third of the book. I struggled to finish.
I also feel uncomfortable with the repulsive, salacious details provided, although the author claimed that 95% of the book is fiction.
Huh?!...W.w.w.w.what?!... C.c.c.c.come again?!
Building a story around a president of the USA and his wife, surely demands some respect for privacy, truth, facts, if it is so blatantly based on real people, right? Was this exploitation for sales? I think so. For this reason it deserves the lowest rating possible.
Aren't we all a bit tired of media exploitation? The past election coverage in America is a text book example of it. One of millions. Why should facts interfere with a good story, yes. I am not even American, but even I felt terrorized and traumatized in the aftermath! This book is no exception.
However, the first three hundred or so pages of the book, the detailed descriptions of Milwaukee and surroundings; the lives of Alice as a young teenager and young adult, the colorful social set-up, and the historical background was really well done. The information dumping to fill up too many pages, losing the tension, was not. There's moments of tragedy and brighter moments of happiness, good and less good people making up the adjectives. The realism so well used. I felt present, part of the families, a good, loyal friend of Alice's. Entrenched. Involved.
Despite an effort to vilify Charles (George Bush) as a hard drinking, lazy misfit... truth or fiction?...never mind, I still liked the character, the people lover, the social animal. I don't know George Bush from Adam, but Charles was a gentle, tough, good man. Alice (Laura Bush) started out as a strong protagonist, but ended up a pathetic whiner claiming noble victim status, trying very hard to be a heroine, but alas, did not make it - my opinion. Remarkable, maybe.
I should have stopped reading before they arrived in the White House, and just ignored the gory details of the 'fiction' surrounding them. How do we distinguish between facts and fiction?
The ending... where is it?
Two forced stars. Sorry. One of us in this experience was lying, and it's not going to be me. It is about principles.
The life of former First Lady Laura Bush might not sound like promising material, but this fictional autobiography delights. When shy librarian Alice falls for Charlie, heir of the Blackwell political dynasty, private tragedies from her past − and her disagreement with her husband’s policies − threaten to emerge. It’s delicious fun to spot Bush family and administration members in this roman à clef. The well-drawn characters defy caricatures of a conniving presidential idiot and his meek, silent wife. Imagining the rich inner story that resides in every unassuming introvert, Sittenfeld has created a masterpiece from an ordinary life.
(With this 100-word review, I was one of 10 finalists for Stylist magazine’s Culture Critic competition in April 2011. It was one of my first attempts at book reviewing!)
wow, my foray into new fiction turned ugly with the first of many sex scenes between a Laura Bush a clef and a George W. Bush a clef. Then it turned uglier with each further insight into GW's pretend sex life. Such as "I held his penis. It had a nice weight" or somehting like that. You have to be a sick fuck to want to think about GWs penis.
Plus this is one of those books whose back covers calls it "brave" and that pisses me off. Usually it means it's some milquetoast bullshit that tries to use little words to great effect, little sound, little fury, little signifying. And that's what this is, a scurillous little romp with lame dialogue which adds up to 0 insight into how 2 private persons become intensely powerful, and how they inhabit their power or their poewr inhabits them. That's really why I read this book, because of my interest in the everyday of the great, in contrast to the past many decades of democratic fiction (you might call it) with its obsessive attention to the ephemera of little lives, down to the brands that occur in them and their faintest (especially their faintest) sensoria. So this is a peculiar hybrid, an entry that hustles itself into the slaughterhouse of fiction, as Moretti calls it, but which is so interesting for that reason: an effort to tell big stories as if they were the same as little stories, but with a different adress. A new entry in the venerable tradition of political pornography, in which the pornography, rather than discrediting "a great one" (un grand), burnishes his title to normalcy.
Oh, plus I love how the word "zaftig" stands out like an SAT word in the pallid writing. That's what the SAT has done to us. Divided words into regular words and SAT words, and when you encounter SAT words in the middle of a book like this you say to yourself (or you are supposed to)--ooh, nice SAT word.
I'm surprised, but so far I *really* like this. The main character is very compelling and I love the grandmother. More soon....
9/30: The first chapters are definitely the best, and my biggest problem with this novel is all the TELLING instead of SHOWING. There was so much rumination, explanation, summary, etc. that it started driving me crazy, and the last 150 pages were tough to get through. It needed more scenes, action, dialogue.
Also, how did the fairly interesting young Alice become this country club Junior League person? Alice gets really dull, and we don't really see/understand her transformation b/c of the time shifts between sections.
It was creepy to have to imagine George W. Bush having sex, too, for sure. That was another problem--I was always thinking about the real-life "characters," and so it's hard for me to respond to _American Wife_ as a novel. I wonder if this would be a better book if it were completely fictional?
The grandmother was still my favorite character. And maybe Snowflake.
I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's debut novel, Prep. And while I wasn't thrilled when I discovered that the main character of this book was based upon Laura Bush, I remembered how brilliantly Ms. Sittenfeld crafted the coming of age story of her young protagonist in Prep. I suspected that her treatment of Laura Bush masquerading as Alice Lindgren Blackwell would be equally engaging. For the greater part of the book, I was not disappointed. An American Wife proved to be a refreshingly modern rendition of a classic American coming of age. However, the book's final chapter proved to be a bit of a let down. It seems that the author lost her focus after the main characters moved into The White House. I could barely endure the main character's laundry list of complaints and regrets about her role as First Lady. It was distracting and it almost ruined a perfectly lovely book.
This book got four stars from me because I agree with most of the reviews (not here; "out there"): The first three sections (about 3/4 of the book) were good and interesting but the fourth section just didn't work as well. It was like being brought up short: "Oh yeah...she's the First Lady. Damn."
Of course it's the parallel to that other First Lady that has people reading this book but it's in the first three sections that Sittenfeld creates this interesting and complex character (yeah, she's also pretty passive, but I understood why she was) that you can almost detach from that other First Lady.
On reading some of the bad reviews ("here" as well as "there") I wonder whether people are allowing their antipathy for the Bush administration to color their opinions. I understand this (to an extent) but I also understand how Sittenfeld can take a premise (see 2004 Salon article) and turn it into something that's not a memoir or a biography but a mostly unique work of fiction that is loosely inspired by real people and events.
This is one of the most thought-provoking and absorbing books I have read in a while. (I'm pretty sure I thought about it in my sleep.) First, there's the fact that it's loosely based on the life of Laura Bush; second, there's the fact that Curtis Sittenfeld has a staggering talent for making characters absolutely real (even when they aren't real already; see PREP).
Sittenfeld gives so much insight into Alice Blackwell, and when you, as the reader, understand in such a close and detailed way what "Alice" is thinking and how she is feeling, it's nearly impossible not to be as sympathetic as the author. It's really, truly, mind-opening (thinking, of course, of Laura Bush). The book is set around four distinct phases in Alice's life; it skips over the time when Charlie Blackwell is governor, before he becomes president. I would have gladly read another 100 or 200 pages describing this period - and, except for cases where I feel the end has been rushed, I rarely feel that books should be longer than they are.
You never know what goes on behind closed doors. And after reading American Wife, we still don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, but it sure is riveting to read what might. When the subject is married to a good-time Charlie (Charlie Blackwell in this case) from a prominent political family, who purchased a Major League baseball team, served as a Republican governor, then won a contested election to become a two-term President . . . well, it all sounds very familiar. The mix of truth and fiction grabs your attention and throttles up the curiosity factor. It convinced me that I’m not interested in being First Lady, but I admit it left me a little empathetic toward the woman who recently held that role.
This thinly veiled fictional account of Laura Bush was absolutely fantastic. I'm sure the First Lady will be embarrassed by certain juicy, fabricated events, but all in all, I found this to be a love letter to her from the author, who claims to be a huge Laura Bush groupie. Sittenfeld is a true master of character development and this is some of the best fiction I've read in awhile--I couldn't put it down and stayed up way too late reading it.
OK, so here’s my gripe. Against no one in particular, just things not going exactly as I’d thought they might.
Being the recipient of ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) of books does not automatically shield you from spoilers, does not give you back that Virgin Reader Experience. Especially if you cheat on yourself and troll around the Interwebs for feedback about the book before you’ve finished reading. Doh, did it to myself again!!
In this case, it’s American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. After a couple real duds from ARC programs, I was so excited to find the characters and plot entrancing and thoughtful in the first couple hundred pages. I was feeling very grateful to Random House for such a juicy, engaging, character-rich read.
I was completely convinced when I started the book and saw the internal dialogue from the perspective of a First Lady that this was a completely postulated presidency in a parallel time. (How’s that for alliteration?) And as the central character, Alice, began to grow into a hugely likeable and deeply flawed friend, I became even more sure that Alice could not possibly have anything to do with any living or former First Lady.
Then I lost my good sense and wanted to see what the “other kids are thinking.”
So that’s how I found out that the main character is a veiled version of Laura Bush. Now, when I pick this book back up, despite the roaringly good head start I had with it, every time the male central character has dialogue, I am tortured by hearing it as the weaselly George Bush would say it.
OY. I may have wrecked this for myself. But I should keep plugging through and give my new friend Alice the benefit of the doubt. I find myself working hard to replace the George Bush image with some very strong other player, like maybe a younger James Garner. Maybe that will take hold, sure would be better.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Well, This book was SUCH a disappointment. I loved Prep. I thought Sittenfeld was a master of nuance and capturing the excruciating sensitivity to every social nuance that is being a high school student. However, this book's main character, based on Laura Bush, is extremely uninteresting. I just never liked being inside her head, but I stubbornly kept reading. Also, the sex scenes were difficult to read because I kept having to imagine George W and Laura, and it was just too much for me. And all the Wisconsin details bugged me. I kept wanting to transport the book to Midland and Dallas, Texas. I think the novel is flawed because it is too close and then again, not close enough, to a true story.
American Wife, published in 2008, is fiction, but based heavily on the life of Laura Bush, First Lady of the USA from 2001 to 2009. This is really not my usual kind of book, but it was brought to Book Club by our more literary participant, who has now left citing inadequate time - but I suspect the real reason is our tastes are too commercial for her. I was still keen to read it and get it back to her, but have mixed feelings about it and while it did make me think, can’t truly say I enjoyed it.
Librarian Alice Blackwell, the only child of a small-town Wisconsin bank manager, meets the handsome son of the state’s Republican governor at a party when she’s 31, and despite differences in their political views, marries him after a whirlwind courtship. Thirty years later, towards the end of his presidency, which has been overshadowed by war in the Middle East, she reflects back on their relationship, as a long buried secret threatens her status as one of the most popular First Ladies.
I didn’t know much about Laura Bush, and my main memory of George W was how completely out of his depth he seemed after 9/11 - which happened two weeks after I moved to NZ. I’d been travelling and living in Australia with no TV and no interest in current affairs so had paid no attention to his election - then suddenly it appeared that the fate of the Free World was in the hands of a simpleton. Now, of course, by comparison with the current incumbent, he didn’t seem that bad! So anyway, the problem with a book like this is working out which bits were true. I’ve had a look at LB’s Wikipedia entry and was surprised to see that the car accident which altered Alice’s life so dramatically did happen, but who knows about the other parts. This is quite long (636 pages in my copy) and parts of it really dragged from all the irrelevant anecdotes and “poor me” musing of a woman dragged into a role she never wanted, but lacked the courage to avoid.
Despite the masculine sounding name, the author is female - I had not previously heard of her and doubt I would choose to read more of her work. The writing is fine if unremarkable, but I found the frequent mentions of bodily functions unpleasant and unnecessary - why do we need to read about her various toilet escapades - urination, defecation, vomiting... and to endure so many excruciatingly uncomfortable sex scenes. My biggest problem with the book, however, was having no respect for Alice, despite all the anecdotes designed to show how kind, liberal and thoughtful she is. She’s really just a wimp who gives in to any challenge which threatens her own comfort and takes the path of least resistance every time. Her marriage begins in the 80s but she behaves like a typical 50s housewife, then expects the reader to sympathise. Much is made of her Democrat sensibilities, but she is willing to tolerate the smug Republican hypocrisy all around her - she knows what she’s getting into but does it anyway.
Charlie is , of course, awful - she knows he is, but falls for him anyway. Alice loves children, and worries she won’t have them, so marries one instead. “... I thought that at least in one way, I had not been wrong when I agreed to marry him: He had made my life more colourful.” And yes, for the first part of their marriage, Charlie behaves just like a toddler. Then, when challenged by a family friend she regrets kissing during a weak drunken moment: “I had the fleeting thought then that we are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate” - this depressing conclusion is very typical of the whole book. She is contemplating leaving him at this point, and she really should’ve stuck to her instincts, but once more, she gives in for a comfortable - if admittedly not easy - life.
A final quote which, reading this in 2020, seemed depressingly prophetic: “I can sincerely say that the single most astonishing fact of political life to me has been the gullibility of the American people. Even in our cynical age, the percentage of the population who is told something and therefore believes it to be true - it’s staggering.”
Would I recommend this? If you’re interested in American politics and don’t mind there being virtually no likeable characters, it is probably worth a read, but I’m glad it’s over so I can get back to something less depressing. 3.5 rounded down for the jump to first person present narration in the final section, and complete lack of chapters that made it very hard to read.
American Wife is the best thing I have read in a very long time. I picked this book up from my local library in a moment of desperation when I had nothing else to read. I was about to pass on it when two of my “holds” came in, but I am so glad I cracked the front cover, because I was immediately and hopelessly hooked.
American Wife offers an intimate fictional peek into the marriage of George W. and Laura Bush. Full disclosure: I am in the camp that considers George W. Bush to be among the worst presidents ever. I—like many of the narrator's critics in the novel—viewed Laura Bush as a “Stepford Wife” whose background and life story held no interest for me whatsoever. I had misgivings about spending 555 pages reading a thinly-veiled account of the Bushs' rise to political prominence, and yet, I devoured this lengthy saga over the long Fourth of July weekend.
The protagonist, Alice Lindgren, tells her story of unsought fame and marital compromise in such an eloquent, honest, down to earth voice, I could not help but “get behind” her. Likewise, the portrait Curtis Sittenfeld paints of Charlie Blackwell is “W” masterfully personified. He is a bawdy, self-aggrandizing F-up, and yet, like Alice, I found myself being drawn to his potency and charisma in spite of myself.
Sittenfeld does an extraordinary job bringing Charlie and Alice to life in all their glory, warts and all. The prose is beautiful—clear, plain and heartfelt—and the story both moving and matter-of-fact. Whether you loved or hated the Bush's, or fell somewhere in between, this skillful work of modern-day historical fiction is a must-read. With the exception of a few well-established facts (e.g., Laura Bush’s car accident when she was seventeen; W’s DUI), the rest is all supposed to have been fabricated. The acknowledgments page lists a number of sources (primarily widely-available written works) that Ms. Sittenfeld used to craft this story, but she sure could have fooled me! I would have guessed she’d spent extensive time in the White House with President and Mrs. Bush; so skillfully does she “nail” these characters while probing the tenuous pact Alice Lindgren—and by implication Laura Bush—forged to reconcile her private and public lives and preserve her personal political values without directly or publicly opposing her husband.
N.B.: I’m not typically one to comment on book covers, but I do take issue with this one: Alice by her own account states that she wore a simple suit on the day she wed Charlie Blackwell. So why the fancy white dress, white gloves, and two- (or is it three-?) carat diamond suggestive of a debutante? Is this supposed to appeal to the Harlequin set? Come on, Random House; I’m sure you could have come up with a cover design that more accurately reflects the tone and theme of this superbly complex story.
Three stars is really more of an average. Four stars for the first half, and two for the last half.
However, when reading the first chunk of the book, I was excited, engaged, engrossed, and believed that Sittenfeld had pulled off something epic here, a truly staggering undertaking.
I'm interested to see what the reviews will have to say. God knows there have been books with less strong beginnings and worse endings lauded as excellent. (Indecision, I'm lookin' at you!) I have to say, based on the beginning, I'd say that full scale embrace of the book by reviewers would not bother me.
From the book jacket On what might have been one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House – and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”
My reactions I was expecting a somewhat light look at a fictional first lady. What I got was every so much more – a nuanced, complex portrait of a woman who did not seek but nevertheless found herself in a very public position.
I liked that Sittenfeld takes the reader back to Alice’s childhood and introduces us to this young, quiet but inquisitive girl – an only child who lives in a small town with a loving family, including her grandmother who introduces her to the wonders of literature. We watch her grow to adolescence, make mistakes, grieve over losses and heartbreaks, struggle to achieve some independence, and find joy and fulfillment in her career as a librarian. While her life takes some unexpected turns, Alice remains true to herself, confident in her opinions, compassionate and thoughtful, but also willing to fight for the happiness she wants. She is no less strong because she is quiet. And when push comes to shove, she will stand up for what she believes is right and insist on her due.
The author’s note at the beginning tells the reader that while this is a work of fiction, the lead characters will be somewhat recognizable. And they are, but the reader should remember that this is a work of fiction – NOT historical fiction. One thing I found interesting is that I had looked at the cover of this book and assumed that this would be a story that paralleled the lives of Jack and Jackie Kennedy. I was wrong, but not at all disappointed.
Kimberly Farr does a fine job performing the audio version. She has good pacing and really brought Alice to life for me.
A character-driven story about Alice Blackwell, a small town girl who meets and falls in love with a rising Republican hot-shot from her home state of Wisconsin. The strength of this story comes from the first-person narration by Alice and the way the story is told. Each of the four sections of the story are defined by a place Alice lives and she tells the story of not only what's going on in her life at the time, but fills in certain details to help clue you in on the overall pattern of her life. It ends up making the story feel very conversational, like sitting down with an old friend and catching up a bit.
The first hundred or so pages are all about establishing who Alice is, before we see her meet Charlie, the young Republican hot-shot whose star is on the rise. Despite being a Democrat, Alice finds herself falling for him and the two engaged in a whirlwind romance before getting engaged after just six weeks.
The writing style of the book is well done and while it's not breaking any new ground, the voice of Alice still feels fresh, authentic and real. Watching Charlie's star rise until he achieves the ultimate in political success is fascinating. Even more fascinating is that the story here is loosely based on the story of former first lady Laura Bush. In the end, we get to see the private side of the political office and the toll it can take on any relationship. It may even persuade some to look past a politican's policies and see that there is a human being behind them, who in the end isn't really all that different from you or I.
Much like the protagonists of her novels American Wife and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, and her writing, are interesting, though interesting in a very quiet way. On the surface her work is unassuming: a charming combination of chick-lit and literary fiction. But after finishing American Wife I believe her work is more complicated than it initially appears. Sittenfeld doesn’t commit to telling the most thrilling story but she does commit to respectfully recording the mundane events of a mundane person’s mundane daily life—and as a result, she shows that no one’s life is truly mundane.
I have so much love for this unshowy style. So often I feel deafened by how loud people are yelling to get their voices heard in today’s world. But I can count on Sittenfeld for small but poignant renderings of unremarkable girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately in American Wife, she loses the essence of her story. Instead of always magnifying on Alice, the unabashedly normal Midwestern girl who will remarkably become First Lady of the United States, the story focuses too much on Charlie, her husband and future Leader of the Free World. This broader scope weakens the novel because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Alice’s story but merely a story in which she plays a large role.
Alice’s character is based on Laura Bush (indeed, my post-reading Wikipedia research shows that Ms. Bush inspired this novel a lot); thus her husband is modeled on the infamous George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it follows the Bush saga too closely. I would have preferred a simple fictional vivisection of First Lady life because the similarities to real life were eerie and distracting. It was impossible to view the characters as merely fictional creatures; I kept seeing Alice as Alice-cum-Laura Bush and Charlie as Charlie-cum-Mr. President-George W. Bush.
Like her debut novel Prep, American Wife is a lesson in passivity. It’s a very feminist book without proclaiming itself as such, suggesting that the people who might best lead a country—in this case, women: whose inferior position has taught them compassion—will never run a campaign for that very reason. We also see, again, how being white, rich and male in America can grant you your every wish. Conversely we see how fundamentally unfair it is to be a wife. A wife compromises herself for love; she repeatedly bends her wishes to accommodate her husband. The opposite is never true, however.
But most of all, Sittenfeld teaches us to respect complexity. Contradictions—within a country, within a family, within ourselves—are inevitable. In her quiet way, she doesn’t advocate a solution to these contradictions. She doesn’t take a position. She simply points her finger towards mundanely complex things we see everyday and never notice. How wonderful it is to notice them.
According to a brief interview at the end of the book, the author read some material about Laura Bush and got fascinated about why a seemingly compassionate and intelligent woman would marry someone like George W. This book with the characters of Alice and Charlie was her fictional response to that question, and like most good fiction, it probably has more truth to it than any non-fiction book written.
Alice is a woman haunted by a tragic accident and who doesn't quite understand her own love for the rich, spoiled, smug frat boy she married. But they do love each other, and that's what makes this a book about a marriage in politics rather than a political book with a married couple.
Sittenfeld reverses a typical biography (or fake biography) structure by focusing most on the early years of Alice and then her courtship and early marriage. A large chunk of their life together is skipped over or covered in some minor flashbacks, and this is the the time when Charlie runs for governor and then president.
I loved the ending with Alice's ultimate conclusions about her relationship to Charlie and the level of responsibility she shares for his presidency as his wife. My only knocks on the book are that there's a sub-plot that came across as soap opera-ish compared to the low key narration of Alice telling her story.