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September 14, 2008

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld, in her fiction, has a strange relationship with truth. First, her debut novel Prep, which I failed to love, that was famously marketed autobiographically, with photos from Sittenfeld’s high school yearbook. And now with her third novel American Wife, “loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady,” Mrs. Laura Bush in particular, which has generated controversy as well as positive reviews. The latter entirely justified– this novel is exceptional.

Sittenfeld’s First Lady Alice Blackwell notes that “the single most astonishing fact of political life to me has been the gullibility of the American people… the percentage of the population who is told something and therefore believes it to be true– it’s staggering.” Though similarly staggering in my opinion is the faith these same people have in truth itself, that truth is even possible, all the while fiction is much-maligned and negated, treated as less-than real when it can be so much more so.

Though American Wife could have been a really cheap trick, a satire at best, Sittenfeld’s novel is neither. She’s not exaggerating the “looseness” of her inspiration, so that when I read about Charlie and Alice Blackwell, I didn’t have to think about George W. and Laura Bush. Charlie and Alice were characters enough on their own, and the circumstances of their lives different enough from the genuine articles that I didn’t find myself reading and connecting the dots. They both come from Wisconsin, which Sittenfeld evokes with a vividness I’ve never seen applied to the American Midwest, and Charlie’s family made their fortune in the meat industry. They have just one daughter, as opposed to the Bushes’ twins. Charlie’s father is not a former president, but had made a failed run at the position years and years before. The country invaded by American in 2003 goes unnamed. Etc.

I take from all this that Sittenfeld was not trying for an expose, a Primary Colours, or any kind of exploitation of Laura Bush’s life. But rather that she has been intrigued by Laura Bush, by her unique position and her elusiveness, the evidence that she is a far more complicated person than the public gets to see. And so Sittenfeld imagined herself into a position much like Bush’s, but not the same one– this story is Sittenfeld’s own. The character we get to know intimately as Alice Lindgren Blackwell is a singular creation.

Of course, so was Hillary Rodham Clinton, as depicted in her autobiography Living History. (I loved Living History; I admire Hillary Rodham Clinton). Sittenfeld fictionalizing that style of narrative, that pseudo-intimacy that springs up between autobiographer and her reader. “If I were to tell the story of my life,” narrates Alice Blackwell, “(I have repeatedly declined the opportunity), and if I were being honest (I would not be, of course– one never is)…” But here we are holding the story of her life in our very hands, and our burdened hands, I note– at 55 pages, this book is as voluminous as any autobiography.

The story begins with Alice Blackwell’s question, “Have I made terrible mistakes?” and then sweeps back to her childhood, growing up as the daughter of small-town banker. The sheer normalcy of her life challenged by her unorthodox grandmother Emilie who lives with them, never does a bit of housework and spends her days smoking cigarettes and reading novels. It is from Emilie that Alice acquires her lifelong love of books. It is Emilie also who arranges Alice’s abortion (still illegal then), when she becomes pregnant in her final year of high school.

The novel is broken into four sections, a chronology of key episodes. From Alice’s childhood, we skip ahead to her thirtieth year. She is a school librarian, content to be single, and about to purchase her first home when she meets Charlie Blackwell at a backyard bbq. As crass as she is reserved, a Republican to her Democrat, Charlie is also being pursued by Alice’s best friend, but he is unrelenting. And when she falls in love, the reader can see why– this a marvelous achievement of Sittenfeld’s work, that she makes love for a George Bush-y character seem plausible. Not that it’s all sentimental, and throughout the book Alice herself is at times downright unsympathetic, but these aren’t caricatures, or even “characters”; they’re people and they’re real.

Ten years later, Alice is a mother, more settled in her country-club lifestyle, but she has had enough of her husband’s drinking and general discontent. It is when she threatens to leave him that he finally cleans up his act, stops drinking and is Born Again. From there the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is clear (and what strange times we must live in, that this is the case). The last quarter of the novel a bit more ruminative than I would have liked, but I still couldn’t stop reading. The choices Alice has made as a woman and as a wife, during her “life in opposition to itself”, have come back to haunt her, and she must act in order to protect her husband and his presidency, of which she is inordinately tired.

That this fictionalized biography reads so true is down to the details, all the details, but the bookish ones in particular. Alice tells us the names of the books her grandmother is reading, every single title in a stack she buys for a young friend of hers, which includes books by Loises Duncan and Lowry, Judy Blume and Cynthia Voigt. Her daughter Ella reads Bunnicula on the flight to Charlie’s college reunion. Alice has John Updike in her handbag on her first date with Charlie, and she wonders if she’ll ever learn to read so sneakily at political conventions that no one will notice (and she is sad to never manage this). Of her husband’s religion, Alice says, “I don’t believe Charlie could have quit drinking without it… Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose– what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?– and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along.”

American Wife, for all its fiction, sheds a great deal of light on the Bush Presidency and on America. Sittenfeld answering the question, “How could this have happened?” That a man with such limitations could become so powerful, how any awareness of the enormity of his mistakes would make him all the more steadfast about continuing to make them, that the political is really only personal, because politicians are people. Not just in the “we wear sweaters and have children” sense, but in terms of blatant fallibility. How “this”/Bush could have happened is so truthfully imagined here, and isn’t imagined as close to truth as we can get?

Says Alice Blackwell, “What I dislike most about the political conversation is its pretense that a correct answer exists for anything, that it’s not all murkiness and subjectivity.”

If only the cover
of American Wife did not feature a wedding dress though, and I can’t even think of why it does, since Alice Blackwell didn’t wear one to her modest nuptials. I fear the cover of this book will deter a man from ever picking it up, which is almost tragic, because this book is so rich, entertaining and important. Enacting Hilary Mantel’s assertion that “revolution is a daily task”, that the domestic is the heart of everything.

One thought on “American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld”

  1. Becky says:

    Wow! This sounds like such a great book. I am going to go to the library today to see if I can find it.
    I just recently was given the opportunity to read a great book titled, “Letters Between Us,” by Linda Overmam. This book isn’t actually scheduled to come out until next month, October 6th, but I was given the opportunity to read it before it’s release date- you can imagine my excitement!
    “Letters Between Us,” kind of has the same feel of “American Wife.” – at least from what gather from reading your blog. I love books that talk about women and their lives- whether they be fiction or non-fiction- they intrigue me. Thanks for positing this book.

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