Wednesday, December 16, 2009
This is another fact/fiction mashup. Is that all anybody is writing these days? Unlike Daphne and The 19th Wife, both of which place a real-life person in a partially fictionalized setting, American Wife takes a more traditional approach; it’s a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush, but she is never identified as Laura Bush, and instead is called Alice Blackwell. Her girlhood is transferred from Texas to Wisconsin, her husband is called Charlie Blackwell, and she’s given one daughter instead of two. Otherwise many of the details are based on the circumstances of Laura Bush’s life, including a tragic automobile accident that occurred in her teens, her career as a school librarian, and her obvious ambivalence about her role as First Lady of the U.S.
I tried to approach this book purely as a work of fiction, and as such, it worked beautifully. I really loved reading it, and I loved Alice Blackwell. I could even see why Alice married Charlie, and why she stayed with him. Their relationship is complex and multi-layered, like most marriages. It’s a very mature, insightful book, considering the relative youth of the author (who is in her early 30’s now).
The trouble comes when you think about the story in light of what you know about the Bushes. Laura Bush was always an enigma as First Lady. Because I had no particular preconceived ideas about her, it was easy for me to connect with Alice Blackwell. If Laura Bush is indeed at all like her fictional alter ego (which seems to be true, according to independent sources) then I think I would very much enjoy a long afternoon with her.
But I really didn’t like having good feelings about George Bush, even a fictionalized George Bush, and that made me uncomfortable. Again, because this is a good book, Charlie Blackwell is well-drawn; he’s crude, impulsive, and judgmental, but he’s also warm and funny, and he loves Alice and their daughter with all his heart. I just kept saying to myself “it’s only a novel, it’s okay to enjoy it.”
A lot has been written about this book. The piece I liked best was published in Salon back in the fall of 2008. It’s a long interview with the author, Curtis Sittenfeld, and in it she addresses a lot of the issues that preoccupied me as I was reading the book. Here is the link.
(Book 43, 2009)